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An Industry Leader’s Advice for Attracting, Fostering, and Retaining Women in Manufacturing

A tech evangelist, Parna Sarkar-Basu serves as a strategic advisor to transformational leaders and technology pioneers. Q&A, she breaks down how to advance in the manufacturing industry and how to support other women.

Parna Sarkar-Basu

Founder of Brand and Buzz Marketing

Why are women underrepresented and underutilized in manufacturing industries?

Data shows the industry offers a wealth of opportunities and more women are joining the manufacturing sector. A study found that the women who work in manufacturing are well educated, with 90 percent of them holding a bachelor’s degree or above and 71 percent have been working in the industry for over 15 years and hold a variety of senior positions. According to the report, 52 percent are employed by large companies, with annual revenue of more than $1 billion.

I believe manufacturing companies have an issue with brand visibility. For example, most people can name some of the top tech companies, such as Apple and Google. Ask people to name top manufacturing companies, the reaction is different. According to a women in manufacturing survey, 59 percent of respondents said they could not recall a manufacturing company they would consider a leader in attracting and advancing women and 68 percent stated they were not likely to consider manufacturing as a career path.

The manufacturing industry has an image problem. People consider it to be old school, where the jobs are mostly blue collar and monotonous, and the work environment is dirty factory floors. They also fear that their jobs will be outsourced or replaced by automation and robots. These are some of the reasons why companies are having a hard time hiring and retaining professionals, including women.

What innovations are currently taking place in the manufacturing industry that are exciting to you?

As a member of the tech eco-system, I see a variety of emerging technologies that are transforming the manufacturing industry. Some of my favorites are wearables like smart glasses and biometric sensors, smart warehouses with collaborative robots (cobots), and automated guided vehicles (AVS) and tools that increase productivity and mitigate risks using artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Do you have to have a STEM degree to work in the manufacturing industry?

Many manufacturing jobs do require a STEM degree, and there are many that do not. Not having a STEM degree should not be considered a reason to eliminate having a career in manufacturing. In fact, it’s the manufacturers who should reassess their hiring practices and see how people acquire new skills. Based on my experience and interaction with entrepreneurs, I’ve learned that even if you don’t have a STEM degree, you can learn and still make a difference. If you are interested in a particular job, you can take online courses or be trained on the job. Personally, I know women who are working on AI products with liberal art degrees. You just have to be open to learning and refreshing your skills and companies need to be open to new practices.    

How can manufacturing companies approach recruiting, retaining, and advancing women in the workplace differently in order to increase women in the industry?

Historically, World War II put women in manufacturing in the spotlight, including Mary Doyle Keefe (AKA Rosie the Riveter) and Stephanie Kwolek, the creator of Kevlar. In today’s digital era, women continue to make an impact in manufacturing with their innovations and leadership. And yes, there are a lot of high paying jobs in manufacturing. Now it is up to the companies to raise their profile, reach out to girls and women, and convince them why manufacturing can be a desirable career path. Here are some thoughts on what companies can do to recruit and retain women in manufacturing. 

Change perception: The industry needs a face lift.We need to show the manufacturing industry as a modern, vibrant community with unlimited opportunities for all — young as well as experienced women.

Boost visibility: The manufacturing companies, especially the smaller once, should invest in increasing awareness to drive brand recall and recognition.

Showcase innovation: People feel proud to work for innovative and purpose driven brands. So demonstrate the company’s commitment to innovation and contributions to society.

Spotlight employees: Create high impact programs that spotlight the corporate culture and employees, especially women. This will help motivate more women to join the company. 

More companies seem to be hiring women or promoting them now than ever before. What can women do to get their voices heard?

I believe this is the best time for women to take on leadership roles. Recent developments such as The MeToo movement and legislation to hire more women on boards have created significant opportunities for women to step up and lean in. Here are some pointers I give to my women clients to drive visibility and thought leadership so they can take advantage of these opportunities.

Identify and focus on a single expertise. The expertise that will allow you to get a new job, a promotion, or launch a business.

Be seen and heard in the digital world.  Share your expertise online and be relevant. It could be via articles, podcasts, speaking, or videos — whatever medium you are most comfortable using. 

Be positive and engage. When creating content, make it educational and actionable so people can learn from you. Don’t sell.

These tips will not only help you rise above the crowd but make you discoverable by your target audience and build a positive digital footprint, while helping to educate others.

Tell us about your career journey. How did you become an advocate of women in tech?

Like many immigrants, I came to this country with two suitcases, with no network or mentors to guide me. After knocking on many doors, I was hired as an unpaid intern by a woman executive — despite having a master’s degree and a couple of years of experience. A few years later, I joined a tech company and had a seat at the table. As I continued my career journey, I was often the only woman sitting around a table of male executives. Yes, I was proud of my accomplishment. Soon, I realized that it’s my responsibility to create opportunities for women and encourage students to pursue STEM careers. That was the beginning of my advocacy career and creating programs to help women in tech and students. Recently, I launched my consulting firm Brand and Buzz, and one of the driving factors was to help women gain visibility and have a seat at the table, irrespective of what industry they work in.   

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