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I was in the third year of my apprenticeship and in the process of transitioning into my first job as a program manager when I was offered a position leading a portfolio of automotive OEMs for whom my employer designed and manufactured interior lighting systems. I was excited about the opportunity. My predecessor was six months away from her retirement, and it was just enough time to bring me up to speed. It was a stretch goal for me diving into the intricacies of the manufacturing and supply-chain industry.
The site’s general manager invited the executive leadership team and me to a priority meeting. The meeting took place in the boardroom, which was separate from the general office area. It was the kind of room where you knew the agenda was either top secret or not good news. Everyone took a seat at the table, and I realized that I was the only woman and a minimum of half the age of everyone invited. Then the GM entered the room. He was in a terrible mood that day. His energy caused instant discomfort and anxiety in the meeting room. He connected his laptop to the projector, opened a busy excel file, filtered top down. The list included obsolete inventory of an extensive list of customers. The top three positions of the report had a significant dollar amount associated. And then he asked: “Who is responsible for these customers”? It was radio-silent in the room. As the GM referred to the portfolio of customers I was about to take over, I looked at my manager. He repeated his question, staring at me, and I raised my hand. He then screamed in a blaming tone the negative impact of these results and how on earth we can live with ourselves accepting such a consequence. I looked disappointedly around the room at all the senior leaders hoping someone would speak up or share a sign of empathy, and no one dared to speak up at risk of losing face.
A culture of empathy and compassion demands gender diversity
Fourteen years later, I still reflect on that experience and ask myself if it would have made a difference if the leadership team had been more diverse. It certainly would have if the leadership style had been more inclusive and informed by compassion and empathy. According to a study by PEW Research Center conducted in 2018, female leaders are 59% more compassionate and empathetic than their male peers. The same research also explains that women are 43% more likely to create an environment of psychological safety. With the increased complexity manufacturers face from powerful forces such as technology, supply-chain disruptions and increased sustainability requirements, building a safe and diverse culture will be paramount to enhance creativity, innovation and collaboration.
Related: Add Empathy and Kindness to Your New Year’s Resolutions for 2022
Start at the top and lead by example; it’s a paradigm shift
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, although women represent about 47% of the total workforce, they only make up about 30% percent of the 15.8 million people employed in manufacturing industries. Only one in four manufacturing leaders are women. The underrepresentation of women, combined with the real or perceived bias towards men, creates a more complex challenge for females considering joining the field, not to mention those already in the manufacturing industry and trying to climb the corporate ladder. The solution to accelerate this paradigm shift is to start at the top and lead by example. For diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives to gain traction, senior leaders must be aligned and convinced of D&I as a business priority. Anchoring diversity into an organization’s vision while authentically and consistently communicating the impact and value to its leaders and workforce can inspire sustainable change.
Related: 3 Traits Women Who Break the Glass Ceiling Have in Common
Attract female talent through walking the talk and consistent communication
Attracting and hiring women to work in the manufacturing and supply chain industry presents a unique challenge for employers. The traditional gender bias of these industries being primarily male-dominated is still present. However, diverse organizations have proven strategies to attract women into their workforce – especially for leadership positions. Sharing internal role models of female leaders and communicating these examples on a company’s website or recruiting process is a good starting point. Honoring equal pay and offering additional benefits such as flexible work and emotional wellness programs signal employees that you care about their needs. Another great example is building female support networks to build powerful relationships and a strong sense of belonging. Research published by Gartner in August 2020 shows that inclusive benefits and initiatives can increase feelings of inclusion by up to 38%.
Drive organizational accountability through measurable goals
Manufacturing and supply-chain are very measurable and result-oriented industries. Every enterprise has quantitative and qualitative goals from daily output reports, on-time delivery, quality performance, and regular forecast vs. actual reviews. The same level of transparency and accountability is necessary for Diversity and Inclusion initiatives. Every senior executive should include gender diversity as part of their annual goals and delegate it with equal priority through multiple levels of their organization.
Related: Diversity Starts at the Top: Embrace Different Perspectives for Maximum Success
Choose sponsorship over mentorship
In an insightful article, Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women, written by Herminia Ibarra, Nancy M. Carter and Christine Silva and published in Harvard Business Review, the authors explain a crucial distinction between mentorship and sponsorship.
“There is a special kind of relationship — called sponsorship — in which the mentor goes beyond mentoring and uses his or her influence with senior executives to advocate for the mentee.” They further describe, “Our interviews and surveys alike suggest that high-potential women are over mentored and under sponsored relative to their male peers — and that they are not advancing in their organizations.”
I couldn’t agree more with this assessment reflecting on my personal experience of more than 17 years in the manufacturing industry. Although high performance was always the foundation of accelerated growth, I could not advance in the early days without the advocacy of sponsors in senior executive positions prioritizing my development above the interest of a direct manager.
Retain women by offering autonomy and focus on the effectiveness of results
The years between the age of 25 and 45 are crucial for every professional’s career development and growth in the workplace. This phase is further tested for women by creating a family, becoming pregnant and taking over the primary care-taking responsibility most of the time. Women working for companies who value “face time” and a culture of being “always on” can find themselves at a significant disadvantage — organizations with a genuinely inclusive culture value effectiveness of results over productivity or being constantly connected.
Another pitfall at most organizations is the lack of an onboarding and integration process of women returning to their full-time job after maternity leave. In the absence of organizational support, new challenges such as creating healthy boundaries, workload delegation and time management are left to the female talent to navigate, not to mention the emotional and physical impact of pregnancy. Prioritizing the health and well-being of an employee can be supported through creating awareness on a leadership level. A simple step such as providing a health coach for the talent as part of its personal development can go a long way and significantly positively impact an employee’s well-being while increasing loyalty.
Globally, we have made good progress over the last two decades in increasing the diversity of corporations, both in gender and ethnicity. The road is long, and it will require years of focus on policies, programs, and measurable results to transform industries for a more inclusive, equitable, and diverse workforce at all levels. In the era of “the Great Resignation,” gaining a deeper trust and commitment from employees will depend on corporations’ sincerity in creating diverse, equitable and inclusive cultures.
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