The line manager received a call, it was an emergency situation. One of the linemen had cut his fingers and the line manager had some important decisions to make. The injured lineman had to be rushed to the hospital. The EHS department had to be informed about the accident. The line being part of a continuous process factory, any stoppage would mean losses; so the line manager gave instructions to the team leaders to ensure production is not disrupted. When all the exigent tasks had been attended to, the line manager settled down to inform the family of the injured lineman. No lessons taught during the engineering course or industrial training had touched upon this difficult situation.

But she managed it with ease. Empathy was a virtue that she was naturally endowed with, she only had to put herself into the shoes of the family member. As the line manager, she assumed the responsibility of personally informing the lineman’s wife and assuring that the company’s top priority was employees’ health and safety.

Now the reality check: how many of you reading this had originally envisioned a man as the line manager?

Traditionally, the manufacturing sector has been considered a male bastion. Until a few years ago, women in manufacturing were seen as non-conformists. Even today, in some places women pursuing mechanical engineering degrees are greeted with raised brows. The College of Engineering, Guindy (CEG) can boast of being pioneers in bringing women into the engineering courses. Back in 1943, three young women of CEG became the first women in India to graduate with engineering degrees. Later in 1967, Lila Poonawalla became the first Indian woman to secure a Mechanical engineering degree from College of Engineering Pune, and went on to be the CEO and Chairperson of large corporates. Today, almost half a century later, we haven’t made considerable progress in the area of women’s participation in manufacturing and engineering sectors.

This article seeks to identify the root cause for this dismal situation in one of the sectors that has the potential to stimulate economic and social development through increased participation of women.   We spoke to industry leaders who are in a better position to throw light on the facts concerning women’s presence in manufacturing. They have shared their thoughts on the factors affecting women’s participation and the challenges faced and suggested measures to overcome these challenges.

In the first part of this article, a HR leader in the manufacturing sector shares his views on the major issues that determine women’s participation in the manufacturing sector.

Mr. Padmakumar, HR Director – Saint Gobain India

About 20 years ago, I visited a sugar factory in Thailand. I was surprised by the number of women employees in their shop floor. In India, such an industry is highly male-dominated. The experience of this visit stayed in my mind whenever I proposed women candidates for manufacturing. Women in India are well-qualified and have the right mindset to work in the shop floor, besides competing with and excelling their opposite gender in all types of comparable jobs. From the exit interviews of women I learnt that they face one or more of the following issues viz. Mettle, Mobility, Marriage, Mother-in-law, Maternity and Motherhood.

1. Mettle – The upbringing of girls plays an important role in this. Those who are brought up encountering challenges in life during early stage seem to have the resolute to face challenges. Those who could team up and work with people are better placed in anticipating and also facing challenges. In organizations, responsibility of the superiors is in complementing these requirements. One of my colleagues used to make it a point to provide self-defense training during Women’s day every year. The women who underwent these sessions had gained some confidence that ‘they can, if need be’ at the back of their minds. It is therefore desirable for schools to impart such self-defense training as a part of the curriculum.

2. Mobility – The dependency factor is an important variable in one’s life. Ability to ride a bicycle, two wheeler or car is definitely advantageous. Lack of independent mobility is a serious handicap at various stages of life and early adoption can serve as an accelerator in one’s career in manufacturing or any sector for that matter.

3. Marriage – Whether to marry or not, is certainly not the factor. Getting to marry a right partner who can confer the right meaning to the spouse’s aspiration is what matters most. Spouse’s imagination of marriage partner’s life as ‘my way or the highway’ or ‘be my shadow’ or ‘I am the captain of this ship…’ etc. are recipes for imminent trouble. The spouse needs to invest time to understand the career aspirations of their partner. Even those who are not formally educated might have ideas and interests that can be pursued as entrepreneurs or as gig employees. Creating a new way of living that co-exist, (that is inter-dependent and not over-dependent) is what I found often successful for building the foundation for one’s strong career.

4. Mother-in-law – The belief that, all parties affected by this eco-system are amenable is important. This eco-system has, viz mainly husband, wife, and Mother-in law in close proximity and father, mother, father-in-law and siblings at an influencing distance. Approaching the eco-system, all parties are a problem of different orders and mother-in-law is ranked higher in this scale after marriage. (In Management parlance, this is change management!) I recollect one of my superiors’ advice to me, ‘if you want to change anyone, run along with him for some time’; it has worked for me at all times. I am sure the women with career aspiration follow this thumb rule. If successful, she would have converted a problem into an opportunity. Developing such a characteristic will complement in developing one’s career in the manufacturing sector as well.

5. Maternity – It is inevitable and essential. It is the lack of understanding that makes women perceive this as a problem or postpone this to an uncertain date. My observation is that the wiser ones are ahead, the ones who leverage the eco-system when their relatives are young and healthy to support. It is a fact that most of the roles in manufacturing cannot be performed from a distance. A major responsibility for any employee, especially a women employee is to build bridges in the organization. When the good news of maternity is shared, the organization often remembers her interpersonal skills and demonstrated technical capability and impact on the job role/ function/organization. Organizations and functional heads put all their might to support her during this phase. If we invest we get return, the emotional and technical investment during the initial phases of one’s career is what will provide the returns during the hour of need.

Hence I see maternity through the words of Louis Pasteur ‘Chance favors the prepared mind’. Tuning in to rejoin is an important phase. During the final stages of maternity leave, it will provide a head start for the second innings. Like an athlete keeps herself fit for the track, it will be great if the employee keeps herself abreast with the latest updates, goals, strategy, structure, skill sets, and systems, to be ahead of the race.

6. Motherhood– It is an investment where one exercises her choice. While the principle of investment stated above still holds good, the best way is to give the right meaning. I have seen colleagues in my work life making different choices. There are few who quit with a zero or one option. There are others who adopted flexi-working, identifying the right intervention needed after leveraging the stake holders’ availability that included spouse, parents, in-laws, friendly neighbors, domestic help and even drivers. Give the right meaning, and leveraging the eco-system could complement the success journey.

While the above factors are very relevant for women employees to make a mark in their career, the fundamental characteristic that needs to be developed is ‘one’s positive intent’ and ‘creating a community around you, on whom you repose trust’.

In the second part of this article, the challenges faced by women in manufacturing and steps to overcome these challenges are discussed.