#YMLWomen – Why so few women in manufacturing?

Why so few women in manufacturing?

Melitta Dér, Student Assistant, Technische Universität Braunschweig

There is no dispute that women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors and careers in most industrialized countries around the world. According to the Eurostat there were more than 6.3 million female scientists and engineers 2019 in the EU, accounting for 41% of total employment in science and engineering. Although this is great news towards gender equality, looking at the statistics according to sectors, one particularly strikes out. The Eurostat study shows that women are underrepresented especially in the manufacturing sector, where only 21% of scientists and engineers were female. What are the underlying causes of this huge discrepancy between genders in the manufacturing sector? The answer to that question is complex, and starts with the double burden of work and family, to deficits in areas such as networking and self-portrayal, to the rapid dynamics of the industry, which hardly allows any time off, especially in production- and research-intensive areas.

Gender specific segregation

Although the 2021 OECD report shows that 57% of students finishing higher education are women, there is gender specific segregation, one between the field of studies and among the hierarchy levels.

A vertical segregation takes place on different hierarchical levels. Since women are less represented in leadership positions that are associated with high earnings, men earn more on average. Reasons for this could be interruptions in employment and part-time work due to family work. Those, working part-time rarely reach managerial positions and it generally has a negative impact on wage development. On the other side, women with lower income tend to interrupt their employment and/or reduce their working hours in order to devote themselves to family work. This not only has an impact on the gender pay gap, but is a vicious cycle considering the missed opportunity from building professional and social networks. Good relationships and a strong involvement in social networks not only have a considerable influence on getting a job after graduation, but also on climbing the career ladder. Integration into academic networks as well as targeted networking are central strategies for positive career development and can play a major role in filling leadership positions for women. However, numerous studies show that many networks are male-dominated and women remain excluded. Women are less well integrated into both formal and informal networks. When they are, then mostly in smaller professional networks that are less dispersed throughout the company and in which both female and male members are represented. In contrast, men’s networks are larger, highly dispersed and consist mainly of same-sex contacts. As a consequence of this involvement, men’s professional networks are more helpful for career than women’s networks.

A horizontal segregation describes the fact that women and men are more represented in different sectors and occupations. Transnationally, women are more likely to study subjects in the humanities, social sciences and education, while men are overrepresented in natural sciences and engineering. Further studies show that the absence of women in STEM is driven not only by structural barriers but different sociocultural factors. During the process of socialisation, an individual will be confronted with their gender specific attitudes and behaviours. There is no doubt that parents, school, media and
peers have a huge influence on interests and career choices of adolescents. The doing gender phenomena means creating differences between girls and boys as well as women and men, which are not natural, essential, or biological. For example, as a result, boys are brought up differently than girls. This has an effect later on in their life, when choosing their carrier path. Horizontal segregation evolves, where women and men tend to choose gender typical professions. Another approach explaining the decision to study STEM subjects relates to the still predominant gender role expectations and identities of men and women. The so called stereotype threat has a major influence on choosing a profession. Due to stereotypical attitudes, girls and women identify themselvesless with STEM subjects and, as a result, often withdraw themselves from these professional domains. Even if awareness for stereotypes exists, a person can still unconsciously make evaluations based on stereotypes due to the unconscious gender bias. Another social bias shows that a successful person is often associated with a man rather than a women. This leads to the think-manager-think-male phenomena. This theory is explained by the idea that generally the values of a leader are in conflict with the ascribed role characteristics of women by society. Another important factor is the lack of female role models, especially in technical fields. This leads to the effect that girls and women anticipate lower chances of success in high positions in the STEM field and thus tend to choose a typically female profession. If, despite this, women choose a male-dominated profession, they receive the status of a token minority due to their underrepresentation. This minority status leads to increased visibility, polarisation and assimilation, which can be reasons for women to leave STEM professions and also lead to the leaky pipeline phenomena.

The Leaky Pipeline and Glass Ceiling Effect

The term Leaky Pipeline is used to describe the declining proportion of women at the various qualification levels and career stages. “A greater number of women ‘leak out’ and leave the educational and professional pipelines at every stage of their lives, transitioning from school to university to their careers, than men.” This phenomenon can still be observed in many disciplines despite increasing higher educational qualifications of girls and women, gender equality policies, gender mainstreaming measures, targeted offers in the STEM field as well as networking and mentoring programmes, which points to a persisting structural inequality between men and women. Not only is this unfair to women, these factors often go along with lower salaries and inadequate working conditions for women according to their qualifications. So, there are obviously occupational barriers that make it difficult for women to advance, especially in the STEM fields. The metaphor of the glass ceiling is used for this phenomenon. It represents an invisible barrier that prevents women from rising beyond a certain level in a hierarchy, even though opportunities seemingly arise. Cotter et al. define the Glass Ceiling Effect as an unseen barrier, that keeps minorities and women from rising to higher career levels, regardless of their qualification or achievements. It represents a gender or racial inequality in the chances of advancement into higher levels. Since the ceiling is glassy and thus invisible, female individuals can often hardly understand, why they fail to make it to the top. They do not know the causes of the glass ceiling and for this very reason find it difficult to break through. Therefore, education of both the female and male gender in this area is of considerable relevance, because invisible structures must first be made visible in order to be able to change them. Among the reasons for the existence of the glass ceiling, studies cite the stronger promotion of male employees by male superiors and the extensive exclusion of women from important professional networks.


The question arises, whether and how this inequality could be fixed. Raising awareness about the structural, sociocultural and economical differences between genders in the STEM field and in the manufacturing sector is the first step towards shifting the collective mindset. Research shows that the presence of female role models, especially in STEM subjects, significantly increases the rate of women considering to pursue a profession in the technical field. There is certainly a need for more role models especially for girls in their early ages. One of the many ways to increase women’s and girls’ engagement in STEM are to emphasize STEM skills starting in early education and raise awareness of the recognition and avoidance of implicit gender bias, awareness of stereotype threat, especially for teachers.
Building networks, targeted networking and mentoring are elementary components of a career in management. Due to their minority position, women in management positions are disadvantaged in terms of their access to networks and the development of mentoring relationships. Raststetter et al.
concluded that the larger and more diverse the network, the more frequently women can signal their career plans and the better they are able to find new positions in other organizations if conditions in their own company are unfavourable. The more women in higher positions the newer competencies will be adopted towards more gender balance. Diversity Management plays a huge role in
organisations considering the Leaky Pipeline. Teams benefit from diversity to produce innovative solutions to complex problems. According to Kloxin, support structures within and across fields that
promote mentoring and carrier life balance provide opportunities to foster the success of early career in STEM subjects. Also, improving the working environment and promoting success of all people will
help to cultivate and grow the next generation of diverse leaders in STEM.


In conclusion, raising awareness about the underrepresentation of women in manufacturing and consciously including more women for example in networking activities and mentoring programmes is
the first step towards gender equality. The Young Manufacturing Leaders Network targets especially young women and encourages them to take part in networking activities as this opportunity helps enhancing their chances of staying and reaching high levels in their career path despite all the structural, sociocultural and economical barriers.