Women and the Future of Manufacturing

By Phyllis Wakiaga

The world of manufacturing is beginning to realize the value of women’s participation for its advancement, as it transforms through technology and rapid digitization. Globally, the more the sector changes, the more palpable the need for women’s involvement towards reaching new heights of innovation and creativity.

Women do not just offer a quick fix for the continued skills decline, they are a smart addition in leveraging the changes and disruptions materializing in the industry. Indeed, there are discernible shifts in world trends that signify this appreciation. For instance, the Census Bureau indicated the rise of highly qualified female workers in America’s manufacturing sector in recent years. In their 2016 study, the number of female workers with upwards of a Bachelor’s degree, was marginally higher at 28.1 % than that of their male counterparts which stood at 26.5%.

Similarly, in 2017, Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute in America surveyed over 600 women in the sector, 58% of whom reported to have noticed significant positive change in industry with regards to the inclusion of women and 70% said they would remain in manufacturing, if they had a choice to start their career all over again.

Though the disparities are still glaring, case in point – the Kenya Institute of Management’s findings on representation of female directors in diverse sectors in the country; which indicated that manufacturing sector recorded 19% female representation – the overall global trend in the sector is indicative of increased female participation in anticipation of the industrial revolution.

Advances in technology have changed the processes of production, as more and more tasks become automated and focus shifts from manual roles. As a matter of fact, the lion’s share of industry 4.0’s disruption is said to be directed at current manual roles, which are mainly held by men in the sector. This calls for a re-evaluation of our view of work and labour, in a way that will progressively increase the sector’s productivity and significantly reduce the skills gap. A sure way to do so, and certainly, for Kenya to achieve its Vision 2030 through industrialization is to ensure continued inclusion, participation and more importantly, valuing of Women in industry. How do we follow through on this?

One way is by strengthening current institutions that are tasked to increase gender equality in general. We will not be able to reduce industry’s skills gap if we cannot solve issues such as pay gap, recognition and value of women’s labour among others. The institutions will ensure that existing frameworks on gender equality are adhered to, harmoniously across the country. Studies have shown that women-owned businesses in Kenya account for about one-half (48 per cent) of all micro, small, and medium sized enterprises (MSMEs), which contribute about 20 per cent to Kenya’s GDP and, additionally, they constitute 85 per cent of the informal sector.

The other way, is to confront existing negative attitudes and cultural perceptions that inhibit women’s potential to explore their creativity and talent in industry. Indeed, there are regulatory and structural impediments to the growth of women’s businesses and careers, which can be solved through institutions as stated above; however many of the women are afraid to venture outside of the ‘gendered’ sectors and tiers in manufacturing because of persistent limiting attitudes. Sometimes these are perpetuated by misguided notions, and many times, through unconscious bias.

Thirdly, informed by the above, we need to review the education system to include more girls and women into STEM subjects. What currently dissuades them from seeing these as options they can take up in school and in training, and how can we change that? In solving this, we are not only giving girls and women a fair chance in education to improve their lives, but we are also bolstering the next generation workforce with skills that will render them valuable for the future workplace.

It is for this reason that many leading companies globally are focused on attracting and retaining female talent. Numerous programmes have been established in response to this need, with the aim of helping women interested in building careers especially in sectors such as manufacturing find their match in terms of employment.

Locally, the Women in Manufacturing Programme under the Kenya Association of Manufacturers launched last year continues to provide a platform for young female entrepreneurs to learn ways in which they can scale their businesses from SMEs and cottage industries to profitable and productive businesses. They are also encouraged to shun confining their plans to ‘gendered sectors’ and venture into, for instance, steel, automotive, energy, recycling among others.

Women’s participation and involvement is imperative if we are to achieve our goal to drive up manufacturing sector’s contribution from 9.2% to 15%, as a country. And more so, if we are to increase our competitiveness towards claiming our space in the sector’s future.

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