The Industry 4.0 transition depends on male-dominated fields like computer science and engineering, potentially causing a disproportionate effect on women seeking to enter the field.
However, the industry-wide shift to more automation, big data and robotics may ultimately expand opportunities for women who lacked access to more traditional manufacturing roles, according to industry executives and observers.
The World Economic Forum’s 2016 report on women and work in the fourth industrial revolution predicted that as Industry 4.0 gains momentum, men will gain one new job in an advanced field for every four jobs lost in the manufacturing, production, construction and extraction industries. While a gender disparity exists in the manufacturing industry, it’s even more significant in fields like artificial intelligence, automation and I.T. As a result, the report predicted women will gain only one new job per 20 jobs lost.
“I have found that the gender disparity in I.T. and software development is even more pronounced than in manufacturing, so when you marry these two industries together to get Industry 4.0, it’s really an uphill battle to be more diverse and inclusive,” said Christina Keller, CEO of family-owned plastic injection molding manufacturer Cascade Engineering Inc.
As one of the larger woman-owned manufacturing companies in the U.S., Cascade Engineering — which includes multiple business units in the U.S. and Europe — has focused on incorporating women, but Keller said many women still opt out of the industry early based on a lack of accessibility and familiarity in high school and early college.
Cynthia Hutchison, vice president of Michigan Industry 4.0 hub Automation Alley and head of the recently launched U.S. Centre for Advanced Manufacturing, said the path to inclusion in manufacturing is a long one.
“I thought at 18 that by the time I graduated college, those doors would be opening and more and more would open,” Hutchison said. “And they have, but maybe not at the rate that we all hoped, certainly not in this arena — in manufacturing.”
Hutchison said managers and supervisors still tend to hold women to higher standards. And because women are often the only representative of female employees in an office, women hold themselves to higher standards. A lack of attention to toxic workplace cultures and unintentionally discriminatory hiring practices also create hidden barriers to retaining a diverse workforce, Hutchison added.
Launched in June, the U.S. Centre for Advanced Manufacturing plans to develop a manufacturing inclusivity playbook to help companies find success employing new populations by eliminating hidden barriers and changing internal cultures.
“I don’t think things change because we want them to or know they should,” Hutchison said. “If an environment is used to being one way and we ask it to be another way, we kind of need to have a playbook that walks people through what those changes look like.”
Keller said now — in the midst of labor shortages and supply chain disruptions — is an ideal time for making changes.
“With disruption, innovation has a place to grow,” Keller said. “We have an opportunity within all this disruption to have some real innovation.”
Michigan Economic Development Corp. Senior Vice President for Small Business Solutions Natalie Chmiko said rapid advancements in technology are going to force operational changes for manufacturers. To help Michigan companies stay ahead of the curve, the MEDC has launched an initiative with a goal of ensuring that 50 percent of small manufacturers in the state are Industry 4.0-ready by 2025. The 3D printers, data systems, cybersecurity initiatives and other projects the MEDC’s Industry 4.0 Technology Implementation Grants will fund have the potential to make manufacturing faster, less wasteful, less mundane for workers and more energy efficient. The MEDC last week announced $500,000 in grant funding for 23 companies across the state.
But Chmiko said Industry 4.0 is also about culture crafting.
“It’s also a huge shift in an organization’s culture, kind of thinking about innovating in a different way, creating that culture of innovation,” Chmiko said. “Current manufacturers really have to think about: ‘What does our future look like in 5, 10, 30 years, and how can we prepare ourselves now for that future?’”
Danielle Schneider, an applications engineer at Grand Rapids-based Pridgeon & Clay, hopes the cultural rethink can go beyond physical manufacturing processes, offering new opportunities to women and other groups — such as people with mobility limitations — that the industry has historically overlooked.
“If you don’t put a traditional label on something, people are more apt to think outside the box and look at things differently. These problems, concerns, or new ideas can then be looked at with a fresh set of eyes in any situation,” Schneider said.
Schneider also serves as chairperson of the Western Michigan chapter of Women in Manufacturing, an organization focused on supporting, promoting and inspiring women in the manufacturing industry.
Technology advancements may also help bridge the manufacturing labor force’s gender gap.
“At first glance, we think about doing things faster, but the reality is we’re going to be doing things different,” Hutchison said of Industry 4.0.
Operating differently and with better technology can open doors for new populations of employees by eliminating barriers such as lifting requirements that have traditionally limited the role of women in some manufacturing settings, Hutchison said.
“Most of the jobs today are more about brawn than brains, and I think in the future it’s going to be more about brains than brawn,” Schneider said.
Keller has already seen this happening at Cascade Engineering. A cart-stacking task at one of the company’s facilities that traditionally required a high degree of physicality is now performed with help from automation technology.
“That’s allowed some more diversity of abilities in our facility,” Keller said. “As things become more cerebral … there’s a lot of benefits to incorporating women more.”
“This is the most gender neutral, colorblind opportunity we’re ever going to have because the technologies we have enable people to sit at their homes if necessary, sit in the office, go to a manufacturing facility, lift things they can’t lift,” Hutchison said.
Preparing for change
Women currently make up just 30 percent of employees in manufacturing industries, and hold just 25 percent of leadership roles in the industry, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Despite a persistent gender wage gap, women who do hold manufacturing jobs earn a higher median income than women in other industries. A 2021 Women in Manufacturing study also found that 75 percent of women in the field would recommend it to other women.
“There’s a strong correlation between what women want in their careers — challenging jobs with opportunities for advancement — and what modern manufacturing has to offer now and in the future,” Schneider said.
Hutchison noted that “manufacturing is changing rapidly. Most people don’t really understand how rapidly.”
These rapid changes will create a significant job shift, but Hutchison hopes Industry 4.0 will be mostly a job changer, not a job ender.
For the more than 4 million women who work in manufacturing, continuing to advance in their careers as Industry 4.0 accelerates will require adapting and expanding existing skillsets.
“A lot of it is going to be continuing to sharpen their skills as it relates to technology,” Chmiko said. “It’s definitely going to be having manufacturers create a culture where they can continually train the employees they have for new technology, and those individuals will also want to be seeking out additional certifications or things that they can have that can make them a more competitive individual in the talent world.”
Hutchison is optimistic about the power of educational options in an Industry 4.0 world. While Industry 4.0 jobs require a more technological skill set compared to traditional manufacturing jobs, they won’t necessarily be skills that have to be obtained via a four-year degree.
“That creates opportunities, particularly for women who are constrained by children, environment, whatever issues they have constraining them, to have a shorter commitment to increasing their skillset and therefore increasing their earning potential,” Hutchison said.
Women in Manufacturing (WiM) offers a variety of programs aimed at helping women advance in the field, including a management development program, a leadership institute and an empowerment program for women on the production floor. Schneider said she encourages women to take advantage of WiM and other opportunities for both personal and professional development.
“Don’t be afraid to speak up or question things in order to make the best opportunities for yourself or your company,” Schneider said.