Today, only six per cent of employed women in Canada have a job in the sector, compared with 13 per cent of all men, and unlike the STEM fields, there seems to be no concerted effort or push to get young women interested in manufacturing. In fact, when I asked my daughter if her high school career fair had anything in the field, she said there was “nothing” in manufacturing.
At Mars Canada, we’ve also found it challenging to recruit women to the sector. About two years ago, we embarked on a $77 million, 50,000-square-foot expansion of our Bolton, Ont. food plant. Needing to fill new jobs, we immediately made it our mission to double the number of women working in our plant. While we accomplished our goal — upping our workforce from six to 15 per cent women in two years — we had to rely heavily on employee referrals. There just wasn’t the outside interest from women that we expected.
This was a real eye-opener for me personally. As someone who has worked in the sector for more than 20 years and now leads a team of 110 associates, I believe a career in manufacturing offers unique challenges and incredible opportunities for growth. To help educate young women on this often-misunderstood industry, here are some common misconceptions about manufacturing.
I came into this industry by chance. My mother worked in the sales department of an appliance manufacturer and got me in as a summer student. I remember thinking at the time, “I’m halfway through a science degree, I’m not an engineer. What do I know about designing equipment?”
Carrie Van Zutphen
Over the next three summers, I learned that manufacturing isn’t only about technology — it’s about people. Sure, there are employees with a great deal of technical or mechanical aptitude, but there are also many like myself — people who have a passion for leading teams and solving problems.
At our plant, we don’t expect someone to come in with working knowledge of sophisticated equipment. There’s teaching and training for that. Rather, it’s more about having the inherent thought process and agility required to grow into a role. As long as an associate is willing to learn and ask the right questions, we’re willing to invest in them.
While not every manufacturing process is the same, at our factory there’s no back-breaking manual labour and little monotony. We’re in a constant state of innovation, whether it’s incorporating new technologies into the manufacturing process or learning how to develop new products for the following year.
What’s often lost on people is the maker culture of manufacturing. You start with someone’s idea and your initial reaction is, “We can’t do that, that’s never going to happen.” But then you get together, you brainstorm, you experiment, and you make it work. It’s an incredible feeling to take something from concept to reality, and you don’t have to be an engineer to do that. Furthermore, there are so many functions within manufacturing. If you have that learning agility, you can really move around and carve out a nice career path for yourself.
When I meet a new person outside of work, they’re always surprised to hear I lead a manufacturing plant. It’s almost like everyone’s mental picture of a shop floor is locked in the 1960s: some kind of archaic factory where men hoot, holler and intimidate. Now, I would be lying if I said I didn’t face my share of obstacles when first starting out (men not taking me seriously, ignoring my ideas, testing my resolve, etc.), but times have changed. Like the rest of the world, the manufacturing sector has evolved and advanced considerably over the past 20 years.
My workplace is one of diversity and inclusion. A place where employees recommend their daughters for jobs, knowing they’ll not only be safe, but have opportunities to learn and grow. A place that invests in the personal development of its associates with training, coaching and formal mentorship programs. A place that proactively builds a positive workplace culture by developing great leaders who are as good with people as they are with machines.
There’s no denying the sector is still overwhelmingly male, but rather than being defined by a macho culture, I believe what makes manufacturing truly unique is the diversity in the work experiences and educations of our employees. While most of today’s businesses are filled with functional experts with specialized knowledge sets, this is an industry where people of varying backgrounds come together to solve problems.
I see it every day. By examining situations through different lenses, we’re able to come to quicker resolutions and maintain productivity when the pressure is on. In a fast-paced industry where things change daily, diversity gives our business a clear advantage. It is why I hope more young women consider a career in manufacturing.