Women in manufacturing

In 2011, Jess Halliday, then senior editor of FoodNavigator, called women “the most wasted resource in food production.” She challenged the food industry to address gender inequality up the supply chain, from farms to factories and processing plants.

Now, six years later, it appears that her call has still gone largely unheeded. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while women account for 47% of the labor force, they make up only 27% of the manufacturing workforce. The chart below shows food manufacturing data from 2015, the most recent year available.

Food manufacturing

Industry% Women
Animal food, grain, and oilseed milling30%
Sugar and confectionary products45%
Fruit and vegetable preserving and specialty food manufacturing32%
Dairy product manufacturing30%
Animal slaughtering and processing36%
Retail bakeries65%
Bakeries and tortilla manufacturing, except retail bakeries38%
Seafood and other miscellaneous foods, n.e.c.36%
Not specified food industries39%
Beverage manufacturing26%

With the exception of retail bakeries, women are underrepresented in every area of food manufacturing. And this doesn’t take into account the number of women who work for suppliers to the food manufacturing industry. Although the BLS doesn’t have data that granular, women make up only 21% of the overall machinery manufacturing workforce.

At the same time, the manufacturing industry is experiencing a widening skills gap. A report by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute predicts that 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be available through 2025, but that 2 million of those will go unfilled because of the skills gap.

This article explores how food manufacturers can leverage the talents of women to not only solve the skills gap, but also innovate and thrive.

Solving the Skills Gap

The skills gap is a growing problem in manufacturing. The food industry is no exception.

In our interviews with experts from across the industry, many have talked about the talent crunch. Food processors across the spectrum, from meat processors to bakeries to snack companies, are having trouble attracting and retaining new workers to replace those who are retiring.

This is a serious problem, and one for which the obvious answer might have been overlooked: hire more women. The challenge for manufacturers will be to overcome biases in the industry and provide a work environment attractive to women.

As part of their STEP Ahead initiative, the Manufacturing Institute collaborated with Deloitte to explore the gender gap in manufacturing. Here are some highlights from their report.

Industry biases

The biggest obstacle to companies successfully attracting and retaining more women seems to be an industry bias toward men.

  • Three-quarters of the respondents said that women are underrepresented on their organization’s leadership team. They attribute this to several factors:
    • Industry bias toward men for leadership positions
    • Organizational cultural norms
    • Lack of mentorship
    • Perception of manufacturing overall
  • Two out of three respondents said that performance standards are different for men and women. And, of those, three out of four said the standards are higher for women.
  • Finally, 71% believe there is a pay gap between the genders and that men’s pay is higher.

Because of these biases, only 24% of the respondents would “fully endorse” a daughter or female family member pursuing a career in manufacturing.

What food manufacturers can do

Currently, only one-third of women believe their company is effective at recruiting, retaining, and developing women. Manufacturers who are serious about tapping into this talent resource need to look at what women want in their career and why they would choose to leave a position.

The survey identified three factors in each category, as well as the types of programs that are most effective and steps manufacturers can take today.

What women want

  • Opportunities for challenging and interesting assignments
  • Attractive pay
  • Work-life balance

Why they leave

  • Poor working relationships
  • Lack of promotion opportunities
  • Low income / pay

Most effective programs

  • Flexible work practices
  • Mentorship and sponsorship programs
  • Visible role models

Steps companies can take today

  • Start at the top by getting buy-in from the C-suite
  • Tackle gender bias head-on
  • Create a more flexible work environment
  • Foster mentorship and sponsorship opportunities
  • Start reaching out to students early
  • Promote personal development

For more ideas, explore the Plant Services article “How to attract women to industrial careers.”

Companies that embrace these initiatives can see significant payoffs. A study by Catalyst found that companies with more women in higher positions achieved better financial performance than those with fewer women at the top.

The good news is that just over half of respondents in the Manufacturing Institute’s survey say they’ve seen positive changes in their industry’s attitude toward female professional employees.

Innovating for the future

Solving the skills gap is a desirable end in itself. But it isn’t the only benefit of more women becoming more involved in the food industry. From PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi to Campbell Soup’s Denise Morrison, women are leading some of today’s most innovative food and beverage companies.

They’re also at the helm of many new ventures. Both FoodDive and Fortune recently published lists of some of the women who, depending on how you look at it, are either reshaping or disrupting the food and beverage industry. Here are a few of the extraordinary women who made their lists:

  • Lauren Jupiter, co-founder of AccelFoods, which provides investment for early-stage startup food companies
  • Monica Garnes, head of produce at Kroger who has led a major initiative to increase the amount of produce grocery stores buy from local farmers
  • Kristy Lewis, founder of Quinn Foods, a company working to reinvent popular snack foods, like popcorn

Over the next several months, we’ll be interviewing women in different areas of the food industry to hear their perspectives and gain more perspective on how companies can attract, retain, and develop women in their workforce.

For a good read now, check out the article “Female entrepreneurs say a woman’s place is in the food business,” by Barb Stuckey, President and Chief Innovation Officer at product development firm Mattson.