Despite progress made in recent years, women are still underrepresented in the manufacturing industry. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2023, published by the World Economic Forum, women account for around 32% of the global manufacturing workforce.

The proportion is even lower in engineering roles, as found in the 2021 UNESCO Science report, especially in fields driving the fourth industrial revolution, such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, and more.

As a result, women are missing out on well-paid jobs of the future, and the manufacturing industry is struggling to keep pace with the substantial demand for STEM talent.

This issue was discussed at a roundtable held at the recent Sixth Sense Summit titled Improving Female Representation in Manufacturing. It brought together experts from the field of manufacturing and technology – Russ Shaw CBE, Founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, Marion Rouzeaud, Global Sustainability Director at Hexagon, Madlen Nicolaus, Chief Marketing Officer at Hexagon AB, Melan Kocic, Head of Sixth Sense, Hanadi Jabado, Managing Partner at Sana Capital, Kate Willsher, COO at IFM Engage, Zoi Roupakia, Research Associate at the University of Cambridge, Elizabeth Donnolly, Chief Executive Officer at Women’s Engineering Society, Neo (Mkwebane) Chatyoka, Founder at Uhuru Botanicals, Eleanor Baker, Women Entrepreneurs Programme Lead at Inclusive Business by Lloyds Banking Group, Anne Marieke Ezendam, Co-Founder and CEO at SigniGene, Suki Fuller, Co-Lead at Tech London Advocates Women in Tech and Natalia Campanero, Entrepreneur in Residence Programme Manager at the Royal Society.

In this article, we have shared some of the insights we gathered on why the gender gap in manufacturing and technology persists and consider the strategies that could bridge this gap by empowering women and fostering inclusivity.


Navigating the challenges: roadblocks to diversity


Attracting diverse talent in manufacturing has been a longstanding challenge. Outdated stereotypes of production – often associated with manual labour rather than advanced technology – have proved persistent, and the industry has not always catered to graduates, particularly women.

Modern manufacturing is nonetheless entering a new industrial revolution driven by cutting-edge digital technology. It requires highly skilled workers to operate state-of-the-art machines and design innovative products that keep up with rapid technological advancement.

One reason for the lack of awareness of this positive shift is the failure to communicate the value of opportunities in the industry to a wide audience. According to the Advancing Women in Manufacturing report by the Institute of Women’s Policy Research, more than half of women who applied for jobs in manufacturing learned about the job from their family and friends. Word of mouth may be an effective type of recruitment, but it often replicates the primarily male profile of the current workforce.

A lack of female role models has also acted as a deterrent, particularly among engineers. Try a simple test – search for “engineer” pictures online, and you will mostly see images of men. Public perception of the job still holds on to outdated notions, limiting diversity and hampering the industry’s potential for innovation.

Unconscious bias and gender stereotypes cast a long shadow over women’s careers in manufacturing. According to the Women in Manufacturing 2023 report, fewer than half (45%) of all women respondents feel that they are always or frequently treated equally with men during the recruitment and hiring process, and 20% say that this is never or rarely the case.

Despite being qualified engineers, women have frequently found themselves side-lined into support roles or offered to work in marketing or HR rather than being given the chance to develop in technical positions. According to the data of the Cambridge Industrial Innovation Policy, most women in the industry are employed in administrative and secretarial occupations, personal services, and sales and customer service.

Those who manage to get engineering roles report struggling to progress in their career. They highlight facing a different set of performance assessment standards to their male colleagues and hitting a “glass ceiling”, finding their ideas ignored and their expertise undermined. Overall, women have often sadly suffered from a hostile work environment in a male-dominated culture. All these factors contribute to a troubling trend of women leaving their engineering jobs.

According to the Factory Flaw: The Attrition and Retention of Women in Manufacturing study published in 2021, the most common reason why women decided to leave manufacturing was harassment and disrespect, indicated by more than 40% of respondents. Leavers were also likely to report unequal treatment with men and a lack of prospects for career progression.

In addition to professional hurdles, many women in manufacturing struggle to balance their careers with family responsibilities. Societal norms often dictate caregiving roles for women, leaving them torn between advancing their careers and fulfilling personal obligations. For example, according to the UK Office of National Statistics, women in the UK spend 1.7 times more time a day in unpaid childcare than men and 1.4 times more time in household work. This traditional gender-based division of unpaid work, which is still apparent even in high-income countries, means that women find it harder than men to navigate positions with rigid schedules or involving uncertain shifts and locations.

Organisations have struggled to provide a flexible working environment supportive of female caregivers. Because of this situation, women are more likely to work part-time than men or even drop out of the workforce. For instance, in 2022, 23% of the women and only 5% of men working in UK manufacturing were employed part-time.

Despite these obstacles, there’s hope for change. By championing diversity, implementing supportive policies, and fostering inclusive environments, manufacturing companies can create pathways for women to thrive in the industry.


Breaking barriers: how to make manufacturing more inclusive


The fourth industrial revolution, digital transformation, and resulting changes in the skills required by manufacturing create opportunities for women to enter the industry. From 2004 to 2022, gender diversity increased in several manufacturing jobs. These include professional roles, managers, directors, senior officials, associate professional and technical roles, and skilled trade occupations.

Across advanced economies, the proportion of women working in tech roles requiring knowledge of new digital technologies is slowly increasing. In the US, the proportion of female tech workers rose from 31% in 2019 to 35% by the end of 2023, according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to official Eurostat data, the proportion of women working in computer programming and related services across the EU also rose from 23% before the pandemic to 25.2% at the end of 2023, with increases in most EU countries, including Germany, France and Denmark. In the UK, the proportion rose from 29 per cent in 2019 to more than 32 per cent throughout last year, according to FT.

However, to ensure this positive trend continues and accelerates, manufacturing companies must proactively attract, nurture and retain diverse talent while rooting out harmful gender stereotypes.

  • Raising awareness: It is important to better inform potential candidates about the job opportunities in manufacturing. According to the Women in Manufacturing 2023 report, companies can achieve good results by advertising jobs to high school graduates, promoting openings in job centres, leveraging existing female employees to encourage people in their network to apply and offering more apprenticeships targeting women.
  • Intentional recruitment: To make manufacturing hiring policies more inclusive, companies should actively encourage women to apply for positions in job adverts, implement blind recruitment techniques, and ensure female representation on interview panels during the recruitment process.
  • Inclusive culture: Companies must intentionally and proactively create an attractive and accommodating environment for everyone. A formal commitment to inclusion is a key first step to achieving that. This includes adopting anti-harassment policies and commitments to diversity goals. Regular diversity training and monitoring of gender equity in recruitment, pay, training, and promotions can help eliminate bias and discrimination and promptly identify barriers women face in a particular company.
  • Role models: 5% of women respondents in the 2022 IWPR Women in Manufacturing Survey said that mentorship from other women is important for their success in the industry. Workplace mentorship is often informal, but research suggests that more formal mentorship programs can help women’s retention and advancement in manufacturing. Smaller gestures may also be impactful. For instance, displaying images of women in technical and leadership roles around the office can help normalise diversity and promote inclusivity while offering role models for junior hires.
  • Training for career progression: Over 70% of respondents in the 2022 IWPR Women in Manufacturing Survey highlighted opportunities to learn new skills as one of the important factors that help them stay and succeed in the industry. Developing new skills can often be required for moving to better-paid positions and management, so they are key to attracting and retaining diverse talent.
  • Flexibility: Recognising the importance of work-life balance is another essential aspect of promoting gender equality. Offering flexible work arrangements and family support programmes can help women navigate their professional responsibilities while meeting their personal commitments.

Achieving gender equality in manufacturing and technology is a collaborative effort. It’s crucial for men to participate in challenging stereotypes and actively promote an inclusive environment. By working together, men and women can bring about a future where everyone employed in manufacturing and technology has equal opportunities to thrive and succeed.