“When one of us wins, all of us win,” said Nika White, president and CEO of Nika White Consulting and event moderator, when she took the stage at the Women in Manufacturing: Leaders and Influencers conference at the annual 2022 South Carolina Manufacturing Conference and Expo Friday.
Women make up 47% of the total workforce, however, only 30% of women make up the 16 million people employed in the manufacturing industry in the United States and less than 25% are leaders in the industry, said White.
“As we think of breaking the proverbial glass ceiling, it’s important we celebrate the progress, the wins, the evolution of women showing up every day in this industry, impressing us with their prowess and leadership,” she said. “We have to make sure we are making room for more women.”
A sponsor of the conference, Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corp., said 62% of their workforce is female, closing the gender gap of a generally male-dominated industry.
Ellison Murray, Nephron Pharmaceuticals staff development coordinator, said being surrounded by so many inspiring women to look up to is incredible.
“It’s a company that revolves around women uplifting other women,” said Murray. “Having a women-dominated company in a male-dominated industry really brings a family aspect to the culture. I feel comfortable going to anyone — male or female — in the company and asking for help, and I think that’s a really unique experience to Nephron.”
Michelin Director of State and Local Government Affairs and Community Relations Will Whitley said about 50 years ago, Michelin started looking for its North American headquarters and decided on South Carolina because of the strength of its workforce: loyal and hardworking.
“It’s important to be mindful of women who are underrepresented in leadership in the manufacturing industry and retaining women in a challenging workforce,” he said.
Speakers Monica Johnson, Michelin North America talent acquisition director; Carrie Bonvender, Grand Forest Inc. president and CEO; Laura Bordeaux, Zeus Industrial Products ASC plan manager; Mary Ellen Grom, AFL executive director of customer experience solutions; and Donna Brin, bFIVE40 president and CEO, also took the stage with White in a Q&A-style interview.
Highlights from the speakers
Many people think of us as just a tire company, but we are also in the business of economic mobility. South Carolina is home for us. The world is changing, and the dynamic of the workforce is changing, especially with women in the manufacturing industry. Climbing the corporate ladder was a little different for me. My advice is to be open to different challenges and opportunities and be ready to show up. If you stay ready you don’t have to get ready.
We do a lot to make sure we are bringing in the right talent that represents the community in which we live and work. We focus on diversifying and having a broad perspective to ensure we are getting the right candidates while also showing the community who we are. We look at leveraging benefit offers so they are attractive to a diverse group of people to make sure our women can work and are taken care of such as our milk program. If you are a working mother who needs milk, we have a program to have milk delivered to their home.
We need to change the narrative that this is what working in manufacturing looks like. The game has changed. The skillsets needed have changed. It’s not your everyday job turning a wrench or wearing a hardhat. We start with young girls and changing the narrative they are used to hearing. Having male mentors is also important, especially when they have the “just do it” mentality and believe in us getting the job done. Reaching out and asking for help as early on as possible is also critical. One of the things I’ve learned, especially during the pandemic, is to take time for yourself and rejuvenate.
I didn’t anticipate being the change all of a sudden. I felt the power to say I take ownership of making decisions, when I took over the company, and it makes a difference to have that, especially while making a difference in people’s lives.
We have a very diverse group at Grand Forest. When we first started, we had one male on staff. Apparel is typically a women-dominated field, but we also have a lot of roles for men, too. But I love taking people up the ranks who have been with the company for years. That has been a great part of our company to have many people who have worked in many different areas of the company.
If I look back, I wouldn’t tell myself to make it “easier” because meeting the challenges throughout the years have made me who I am today.
I have been in the manufacturing industry for more than 15 years and was the first female plant manager for Zeus. When I joined the team, I had to dig in and figure out how to build devices. As I progressed, I embraced the culture and learned the culture. Then I started receiving messages from women around the world, who said they were proud of me and you are doing this for us. The realization came to me that I’m here in my position representing not just me but every woman. Zeus never made me feel I couldn’t do it nor made me feel like it was a barrier to get where I’m at. Our workforce going forward will no longer say ‘I can’t do that because I’m a female.’
In any field, mentorship is important. From a woman in manufacturing standpoint, there is only a small percentage in leadership. The more you encourage and support your staff the more we can lift each other up as we go. Work toward closing the gender gap, building women up from the inside is key, but how do you get them in the door in the first place? It’s all about what environment we create. Young girls aren’t thinking they want to be a manufacturing leader when they grow up. We open the door and show them these aren’t just things boys do. When I was younger, I always tried to minimize my gender, but then I learned to just be who you are.
I wasn’t given an opportunity, I earned it. All of us have a story to tell and have to be proud of our reputation and what we have accomplished. It’s sometimes overwhelming and exhausting but not hard. It’s important to fuel competition instead of fearing it. You want to get ahead of your competition and do something different. The Women in Manufacturing organization is here to inspire all women of all walks of life in the industry. When we talk about normalizing this industry, there isn’t anything abnormal about it now. We just need to adapt to the changing times such as with our younger generations, especially speaking to them on the proper social media channels. We have to use our voices to elevate. We are on a lifelong learning journey and have to continue to invest in ourselves and in others while continuing to learn. Education doesn’t stop when you leave college.
With everything we do at bFIVE40, we are changing the status quo by hiring not only women but people with disabilities, using sustainable materials to reduce toxic waste, and having apprenticeship programs with local colleges for the good of tomorrow.
Being here in South Carolina there are incredible amounts of support and resources in addition to networking opportunities, which is paramount to our success, such as the S.C. Dept. of Commerce, S.C. Council of Competitiveness, and the state government. We can’t imagine being here without it. Being able to leverage the resources available to us is crucial.
You have to make mistakes and fail and pick yourself back up and learn — then do it all over again. It’s hard to maintain confidence when you make mistakes, but you have to wear it on your sleeve and figure it out while surrounding yourself with people who lift you up. It’s our responsibility to show young girls there are pathways for them in our industry. When a woman finds success, they didn’t used to want to share it because it took so much to get there. But the dynamic is changing, and every woman can have success now with so many opportunities available to them.