I am sure many of you will recognise the line from James Brown’s famous 1966 single, “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”. Aptly recorded in a studio in Staffordshire, the song lauds man’s manufacturing achievements:
- “Man made the cars to take us over the road”;
- “Man made the train to carry the heavy load”;
- “Man made the electric light to take us out of the dark”; and
- “This is a man’s world but it would be nothing without a woman or a girl”.
Leaving aside James Brown’s motivation for writing this song, my literal interpretation touches on a very current and important issue – ‘women in manufacturing’ and why so few women see manufacturing as a viable career option.
As the song reveals, manufacturing is historically portrayed as a “Man’s world”. It is depicted as a job where you get your hands dirty, wear a hard hat, have a solid grounding in maths and physics and is dominated by men. This has resulted in a major gender gap in manufacturing made evident by the fact that:
- I am writing an article about it (I will be honest, I am not alone);
- The extremely low proportion of women currently enrolled on engineering courses; and
- According to the Office of National Statistics, women make up only 8% of engineers in the UK.
When the UK manufacturing sector as a whole employs 2.7 million people, the above statistics are depressing. According to a number of leading women in manufacturing, the problem starts in schools as girls are, generally speaking, not encouraged to consider manufacturing and engineering. Putting it bluntly, we are taught (even before we can walk) that girls play with dolls and boys play with cars and Lego – this is something I struggle to comprehend as there seems no basis for it. As an aside, and from a very personal perspective, my favourite toy as child was a tractor and trailer that I pedalled around the garden delivering one brick at a time to my Dad who was laying a patio. I don’t think I offered much assistance, but I recall being intrigued that we were creating something from scratch, something which had not existed (at least not in our garden) until that point. The planning of ‘Project Patio’ seemed meticulous and another key job for me and my tractor was to plant a peg with string on it, tie the other end to my trailer, and pedal towards the wall until Dad shouted ‘Stop’, whereupon I planted another peg. I later discovered that the ‘unique shape’ of our patio was largely down to my string demarcation.
But back to the present. The dearth of woman in manufacturing is compounded by a generation gap. It often does not occur to family members (unless there is someone with sufficiently up to date experience) to encourage girls to pursue a manufacturing career. Considering that James Brown’s song was released 51 years ago, (the year in which England won the World Cup, the BBC started to broadcast in colour, and the USSR landed a satellite on the moon) society’s perception of women in manufacturing has barely changed from the 1960’s stereotype of women being confined to desk or clerical jobs despite the rest of the world having moved on.
This not only impacts on gender disparity, but also contributes to a wider skills’ shortage and pay gap. With the Brexit negotiations finally underway and UK manufacturing contributing to 45% of UK exports, the UK needs to attract more women into the sector in order to address the gender gap and the skills’ shortage. Sir James Dyson, creator of the Dyson vacuum is so concerned about the skills’ shortage in the sector that he is opening an institute to address the problem. This is encouraging as not only did he design the Dyson (need I say more), he is quoted as having said:
“Manufacturing is more than just putting parts together. It’s coming up with ideas, testing principles and perfecting the engineering, as well as final assembly”.
If this is the case, then why is manufacturing so male-dominated? Women can generate ideas, test principles and perfect engineering, as well as put parts together. With this in mind, why are we not encouraging our talented men AND women to venture into the manufacturing sector and why aren’t we promoting a career where problem-solving skills are valued? Although I don’t have the answers, I do know that all these issues are being challenged, albeit not as fiercely as I would like…
Man did manufacture all the products referenced in James Brown’s song; however, with the changing landscape of the manufacturing sector, James Brown’s lyrics almost become a prediction – “it would be nothing without a woman or a girl…”