Best practices panel: attraction, retention, and advancement of women in manufacturing

Lisa Blais, Christie Fleming, Natalie Panek, Diana Peters, and Karen Norheim comprised the 2014 Women in Manufacturing Summit best practices panel, which covered topics on recruiting and retaining women in the manufacturing industry.

By Anisa Samarxhiu and Joy Chang September 30, 2014

Advice on recruiting and retaining women in the manufacturing industry was provided in a panel discussion at the 2014 Women in Manufacturing Summit.

Meet the panelists:

  • Lisa Blais, North American industrial practice leader, Egon Zehnder
  • Christie Fleming, senior vice president of marketing, Chicken of the Sea
  • Natalie Panek, mission systems engineer (MTS), MDA Space Missions
  • Diana Peters, director, Symbol Training Institute
  • Karen Norheim, executive vice president, American Crane Equipment Corp.

Question for Lisa Blais: What is your experience in the recruiting side of the business? What are the challenges when recruiting women in manufacturing?

Blais: I’ve had 20 years of experience working in manufacturing companies. As a recruiter, I found out that 99% of the time our clients would want a more diversified workforce. It is good that they recognize the value of women in manufacturing. However, they usually give out very narrow job specifications that only men can fill. We strive to educate our clients to look at potential rather than just experience. Some women may have took a few years of their lives to take care of their family, give birth, and thus they don’t have that much experience as their counterparts. Hiring managers thus need to focus more on women’s leadership, confidence, and curiosity, and broaden their career projections. Male hiring managers often have an unconscious bias. It is natural that people would want to hire people that look like them. We need to make them aware of these unconscious biases and persuade them to see different challenges that women can take on.

Question for Natalie Panek: As a young female engineer, how do you think we can get women like you to be interested in this profession?

Panek: I think the most important thing is to have role models and mentors to look up to. There are very few role models in the media today. Last time when I was doing a speech, I asked young females about whom they identify as role models today? A lot of them know Kim Kardashian, but not successful career women. We need our media to show more women engineers and scientists to inspire young girls.

Another thing is to educate young girls on how to fail. Use me as an example. I grew up in West Canada with the dream of working in NASA. Every year, the government gives scholarship to one young Canadian to be an intern in NASA. I applied for it four times and failed four times. Finally, I just picked up the phone and called NASA to recommend myself. I finally got the internship.

Question for Karen Norheim: Talk about women in manufacturing. How and why is this a wise business decision?

Norheim: We need to think of it from a problem solving perspective. To problem-solve, a company needs many points of view. Women offer a valuable point of view. Manufacturers need to have diversity in order to have a competitive edge.

Question for Diana Peters: Can you talk about your journey and transition into your current role?

Peters: I am one of those people who never expected to work in manufacturing but ended up having a successful career in this industry. I grew up with my dad working in the manufacturing industry, but I did not go to school for STEM programs. One day when I was having dinner with my dad, I learned the problem of the skills gap in manufacturing and how my dad was unable to find skilled workers to work for him. I realized that I can use my skill set to help with the situation, so we started the advanced engineering training institute.

Question for Christie Fleming: As a vice president at your company, how do you maintain work-life balance?

Fleming: A lot of the women working in industry desire flexibility with their schedules. Actually, flexibility is the number one reason why women would leave or stay in a company. For me, it’s more of a daily choice. I can never accomplish everything. If I accomplish everything at work, I miss something at home; if I complete everything at home, I might miss something at work. I came to the realization that there is something that you just have to let go and don’t be too hard on yourself.

General Q&A session

Q: What are the challenges of retaining women in manufacturing once they have been hired?

A: A lot of women get stuck in middle management because of a lack of flexibility. Women may lack crucial experience such as working overseas and having the flexibility to do so. Women need to also take ownership of their careers. They can’t expect people to simply recognize their merits; they must actively seek promotions.

Intentionally engage in interesting and challenging projects to get exposure and experience. Actively subvert stereotypical gender biases by sitting in a position of power in the boardroom, not being the one to do the secretarial functions in a meeting, and voicing your opinions. Be confident. A man can walk into a room looking down on his phone and still be considered as confident. Women need to prove ourselves since there are more stereotypes imposed on us.

Q: How do you create a stronger network for women in manufacturing?

A: Mentoring is a great way to create a strong network. Young professionals should seek out both male and female mentors. Sometimes the male mentors can offer different opportunities to their mentees. We need more exposure of women in manufacturing roles in the media as well. Perceptions within manufacturing have to change to attract more women and a new generation to this industry.

– Anisa Samarxhiu and Joy Chang are digital project managers, CFE Media, and