Getting more women into manufacturing: what can you learn from a lawyer?

Lucy Pringle, partner at international law firm Womble Bond Dickinson, shares how lessons learnt on supporting the progression of women in law can transfer to manufacturing


What do Manufacturing and Law have in common?  Both are traditionally male dominated work environments, which increasingly attract women into their industries at entry level but have not seen the same pace of change in terms of women reaching senior leadership roles.


I have been a manufacturing lawyer for 15 years and love working with manufacturing businesses. The people in the sector are a pleasure to work with – friendly, very smart and collaborative. Those clients are also almost uniformly male. I have always felt welcome, and contrary to stereotypes, have experienced a distinct lack of macho-culture. This experience has shown me that a career in the manufacturing industry has so much to offer women. There are many efforts to improve the numbers of women in STEM and I’ve been delighted to see the numbers of women at industry events increase year on year, but there is huge progress still to be made.


The skills gap in manufacturing is well-documented. Businesses which fail to appeal to 50% of the population are missing a huge pool of talent that can help to address that gap.  In the legal profession we have seen that simply hoping for change does not alter the status quo. Despite the majority of law graduates entering the profession being female for many years, improvements in the gender balance at the top of law firms proved to be glacial until targeted action was implemented. Businesses need to take concrete steps to change the way women experience their workplace in order to attract, retain and promote women. And the good news is that most of the changes don’t cost a penny – very lean!


So what can you learn from a law firm?


I recently set up and now co-chair Womble Bond Dickinson’s women’s network, which has given me a wealth of exposure to what women need to thrive in the workplace.  We don’t have all the answers (and the answers we’ve found won’t be relevant to all women) but here are some of the key things we have learnt that you can transfer into your own business:


  1. Consider setting up a women’s network – You may think it is not appropriate for a male leadership team to set up a women’s network, but be aware that women may have concerns about how a women’s network would be perceived in a male dominated environment, and therefore may not suggest it themselves. To avoid any risk of it being perceived as a ‘trade union for women’, the mandate has to come from the top. Give specific authority for a network, ask them to report regularly into the Board, be vocal in your encouragement of their initiatives and implement recommendations they make where possible. Lastly, value and reward the contribution they make in this regard. Effecting cultural change takes an enormous amount of time, energy and motivation, so it needs to be recognised as ‘real work’.


  1. Role models are a must – There is definitely truth in the saying “You can’t be what you can’t see”, so you need to identify and showcase female role models in your business (at all levels and in all departments). Many women are not comfortable about being put on a pedestal, and few would self-declare as a role model, so this may take some encouragement!


  1. Find and remove barriers – Women can experience systemic barriers in the workplace that men do not experience to the same degree, and also self-imposed barriers that show up more frequently in female personality traits. Examples of systemic barriers include taking time out of the business on maternity leave which impedes career progression, a long-hours culture being incompatible with caring responsibilities, and only making the highest profile projects available to full-time workers. Self-imposed barriers could include women waiting for gaps in conversations to speak up in meetings (those gaps may never come so they never say anything), discounting themselves from the next step up the career ladder and not being comfortable with self-promotion. It is unrealistic to expect men to be able to identify barriers which women experience, so you will need to ask women what issues they face (and that’s where having a women’s network can be handy!). You can then implement targeted measures and tailored training initiatives. There will be traits identified that apply to men too – which gives an opportunity to upskill all members of your team.


  1. Ask women to apply for promotions – It is commonly accepted that women tend to wait until they are 100% ready for a promotion, whereas men are willing to give it a go before they are hitting all the performance standards. Therefore you need to pro-actively encourage women to apply for promotions. Tell them they’re ready, go the extra mile to communicate what the job will involve to alleviate any concerns they may have, and ask what barriers there are to them applying. Women can be more risk averse than men and may need more information to take decisions. If you can, be transparent on the salary associated with promotion so they can assess whether it’s worth the extra work.


  1. Build women into your succession planning – The age profile of leadership teams in the manufacturing sector often gives rise to succession challenges. Identify promising women and align them to leaders who are coming to the end of their careers. It is no good hoping that a woman will be in a position to apply for a top job at the time it becomes available – you need to allow between 2 and 10 years to give a female colleague time to build up the portfolio of skills and experience required to ensure she is the best placed candidate for that job when it becomes vacant.


  1. Be a ‘Rock Star Sponsor’ – Senior men and women can play an invaluable role as mentor and sponsor for junior female colleagues.  As well as sharing guidance and offering them access to opportunities, a Rock Star Sponsor will talk up female mentee to the leadership team, raise her visibility and lobby for her promotion when appropriate. This catalyst for female career advancement cannot be underestimated.


  1. Build diversity into candidate pools – We have recently adopted the ‘Mansfield Rule’ at Womble Bond Dickinson, which is a scheme for law firms requiring that candidate pools for senior roles must be at least 30% diverse. There is no obligation to select a female candidate for the job, but by simply ensuring that your candidate pools include women, you challenge yourselves to start with the best pool of talent and, in turn, help expose women to opportunities and help build their internal profile and CV.


  1. Beware the part-time penalty – More women than men work part-time, and this is one of the major factors which limits the number of women aspiring to top jobs. Many women simply assume that senior roles are not open to part-time workers. Be explicit that part-time applicants are encouraged to apply for all roles.  Support those who work part-time – for example don’t use pejorative language about part-time working (e.g. “she only works part time”), and don’t count part-time workers out of opportunities on the assumption that they will not want to take on extra responsibilities.


  1. Level the playing field – By supporting men to adopt working practices which are typically associated with women, you can help to remove stigma and create a more equal workplace in which women will feel supported.  For example, if you have men taking shared parental leave and working part time, seek their permission to make this widely known in your organisation. If men are prepared to say “I can’t do a meeting at 5.30pm because it’s my turn to pick the kids up” then that does all other carers a huge favour.


  1. Avoid any perception of a ‘boys club’ – If the senior management of an organisation is predominantly male, be conscious of where and when decision-making and influencing takes place. Most management teams would be horrified to think that they were inadvertently leaving senior women out of important discussions. However, if soft power is wielded in the pub, over a water cooler chat about football or in any other informal forum which tends to be more male dominated, then be conscious of the fact that such behaviour can exclude women from opportunities. It is often in these informal settings where new projects are discussed, someone agrees to make an introduction to a valuable contact or tips on getting a promotion are shared. Include women in those ‘clubs’.


Why is it important to take concrete action?

Renowned research by McKinsey found that in the United Kingdom, for every 10 percent increase in gender diversity on senior-executive teams, EBIT, earnings before interest and taxes, rose by 3.5 percent.  Women make up only around a quarter of the UK manufacturing workforce. This obviously makes it difficult to find women to promote into senior roles, which makes it all the more important to retain the women you have and attract new female recruits by making your business the best environment for women to achieve their potential.


Hope is not a strategy – it’s time to do things differently. In doing so, you are likely to give your business a competitive advantage and create a more robust and effective working culture.


Get in touch if you’re like to discuss these tips or share examples of best practice that we could use in our organisation.

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