A Manufactured Gender Imbalance
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While the employment rate in the EU for women (67.3%) still trails that of men (79.0%),[1] Europe has seen progress toward lowering gender inequality in many industries. One sector, however, is lagging: manufacturing. 

Indeed, relative to other industries, and to other developed countries, the share of women in manufacturing industries in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland (DACH) is remarkably low, with just 20% of German manufacturing jobs held by women (in contrast to the US, where 30% of the manufacturing sector workforce is female).

And that share shrinks even further, the higher up the management chain you go. 

The disparity has been hiding in plain sight for years, but increasingly the topic is being aired in companies and inside boardrooms – particularly as the issue of diversity and the importance of tapping all sources of talent is becoming more pressing to the sector.  Where does this huge gap come from? Why does it persist? And what can companies do to redress the imbalance?

Minding the gender gap

To better understand why female representation is so low and what can be done to improve the numbers, Oliver Wyman’s Manufacturing Industries practice conducted an online survey, with participation of men and women from organizations across a range of sizes.

First, it’s important to note the gender breakdown of the survey respondents: Of those who answered, two-thirds were male, while a third were female, which surprised us. We could easily envision a scenario where the proportions were reversed – or where women would be the only ones responding.  So, it was heartening to see that men engaged in the survey and thought it worth their while to respond. Clearly, this issue resonates in the industry.

Not surprisingly, we found striking differences in how men and women answered the survey. For example, when it comes to possible reasons for the under-representation of women in manufacturing, we found particularly disagreements in “intangible”/ ”hidden” explanations (such as “Women resign at some point because of intentional and unintentional micro-aggressions”), with more than twice as many women agreeing with this than men. 

What we also found striking is how the perceptions of men and women tend to align with our stereotypic view of the sexes: Men seem to focus on the practical side of things – they look for something tangible to fix. They’re either oblivious to or don’t react to the kinds of micro-aggressions that hit women in the face. As for women, however, the micro-aggressions and subtle bias they face weigh heavily. This perception gap is enormous.

Finally, we found that the more senior the respondent, the more likely it is that he or she think alike – regardless of whether they were male or female. The higher one rises in the hierarchy of a company, the more their views begin to converge.  There may be two reasons for this convergence: First, women seem to draw nearer to male behavior/perception as they climb the professional ladder – and second, men in senior positions have been exposed more to the topic and have therefore developed a better understanding of the perspective of women. Regardless, this points to the necessity to include more junior women in the conversation on how to make strides on gender balance.

Change calls for more than setting goals

Change can’t be simply “manufactured”: Companies first must set realistic benchmarks and goals and track against them – like any  business priority, we must measure our progress to attain it. At the same time, while setting goals and measuring is good, attaining these will be close to impossible without tackling the problem at the root. There must be a change in mindset for everyone, irrespective of gender.

Exhibit 1: Survey responses on diversity in manufacturing industries

One possible approach might be to emphasize the notion of sponsorship. Sponsorship involves people with institutional power actively promoting individual women and opening their networks for them. Research has shown that women tend to be over-mentored but under-sponsored at work. However, based on our survey among manufacturing companies in the DACH region, women are not even mentored, let alone over-mentored. So, manufacturing in Europe is at a very different starting point – and, as revealed in the survey, manufacturing companies in the DACH region vary widely too, with larger companies in the vanguard. Indeed, there’s room for improvement for companies of every size.

That said, the goal of advancing women cannot be reached by “programs for women” alone. Instead, it calls for the employer to play an active role in supporting men to share equally in family duties (for instance, by encouraging men to take parental leave and allowing them to work part-time).

A good place to begin toward understanding how a woman feels in a male-dominated (manufacturing industries) environment might be to implement structured mentoring or better even “reverse mentoring” programs. In other words, men would be mentored by women to get a richer picture of how women perceive problems and issues.

Conclusion

The absence of women in manufacturing represents a strategic challenge – one that the industry increasingly acknowledges. Manufacturers already face a skills shortage – the failure to tap into half the talent pool puts the sector at a huge disadvantage. Heterogeneous teams are more effective and productive than homogeneous ones. And increasingly, many of the buyers that manufacturing firms increasingly work with are women and so there is an advantage to having women in senior leadership.

But when you’re starting from such a narrow base of women in the B2B manufacturing industries sector, you’re starting from a disadvantage. It’s important for DACH manufacturers to achieve some measure of critical mass in terms of the numbers so that women feel comfortable.

[1] retrieved October 18, 2021