Glass bottles, not glass ceilings – towards a diverse future for heavy industry

December 2023

Lee Procter-Wright, Group Head of People Development at Encirc, is working to break the stereotypes associated with heavy industry and manufacturing to build a more inclusive sector. In this insight, Lee argues that a more diverse industry is a more innovative and productive one, but to achieve it the industry needs to show that it’s one in which everyone is welcome.

Building an industry more representative of our society means getting over an image problem that heavy industry and manufacturing are only just beginning to both understand and tackle. In the UK, manufacturing in particular is ingrained in our culture and history and comes with a host of equally ingrained stereotypes about who works in this industry.

The effect of these stereotypes, that manufacturing is an environment for white, straight, cis, non-disabled men, is that people who don’t fall into that category don’t consider it a natural career path. And from this point the prophecy is self-fulfilling, as a lack of representation retroactively confirms the stereotypes that keeps people out of the industry in the first place.

Breaking this cycle isn’t just about doing the right thing; the business case for having a diversity of thought and perspectives in the boardroom, on the factory floor and throughout the industry is clear. Put simply, it will make us smarter, more innovative, and more creative. If we keep the blinkers on, we will be left behind. As an industry and here at Encirc, we’ve already made huge strides and the industry is more accessible than ever, but we have so far to go. Equality, diversity, and inclusion need to remain a priority across the sector.

The challenge

The lack of representation of women, LGBTQIA+ people, and those from minority ethnic groups is a challenge that goes deeper than just needing to see it to be it. Currently, just 26% of employees in manufacturing are women and just 13% are from minority ethnic groups. That makes joining the industry a far more difficult prospect, particularly for young people at the outset of their careers.[1]

This is why we need to focus on uplifting underrepresented groups currently in our industry, but also work to make everyone an ally and an advocate for equality and diversity in manufacturing, so that those looking from the outside in don’t see an unwilling majority pulled along by investor-relations-conscious executives. Avoiding tokenism should be a perennial priority, and feeling like an exercise in box ticking will quickly alienate new and prospective recruits. Instead, we need to give everyone who joins the industry the opportunity to be an advocate of a more inclusive sector, but only if they want to be – we can’t assume that everyone from an underrepresented community will. Active inclusion must be a natural part of manufacturing.

Some jobs within manufacturing and heavy industry can also pose specific physical challenges with working conditions that are hot and labour-intensive. But these challenges aren’t an excuse to exclude people with disabilities from working in the industry, and one of the main changes we’re making at Encirc is adapting our equipment to make physical roles more accessible for people with disabilities.

Changing the game

The industry is moving in the right direction, and it’s great to see companies celebrate amazing people breaking the mould across the sector. But it’s not just about how people arrive in the business, it’s how they find themselves our specific industry and how they find themselves in STEM fields altogether, and this means going right back into education spaces. Encirc is supporting sixth form girls across Northern Ireland with mentors from within the company as part of the SistersIn Leadership Programme and works with local schools and colleges across all of its sites. Furthermore, Encirc’s Cheshire site has also been working closely with The Girls network, offering professional mentoring for girls from underrepresented communities.

These initiatives should be a starting point for a larger intervention from the manufacturing industry into education focused on establishing opportunities for minority ethnic groups, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA+ individuals, who are even less represented in STEM fields. For example, as of 2021, just 4% of apprenticeships were being taken by those from minority ethnic groups.[2]

To achieve this, leaders should look to those already in the industry, for both advice on bringing people in and making work better when they arrive. In line with their commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace Encirc recently introduced the Women in Manufacturing committee, which in 2020 agreed on a Women in Manufacturing Charter outlining measures to improve the representation of women within the business, including there being a minimum of three women on each shift and ensuring that everyone who joins the business receives unconscious bias training. It is a support network for women, by women, but 2023 saw the committee open it’s doors to all people regardless of their gender identity, to ensure diversity of thought and promotion of allyship. These changes are just the beginning, but it’s important that they’re shaped by the women already in the business and that they reach everyone.

The business case

The business case for diversity is no secret – the importance of diversity of thought that dispels ‘group think’ and allows issues to be examined from different perspectives, the increased scope for innovation and creativity, and the value of leaders seeing employees as individuals rather than a collective. Voices that come from range of different experiences also bring new skillsets, new friendships, and new routines, which are welcome challenges to existing ways of working.

This all makes for more dynamic, profitable, and sustainable businesses, but it won’t just happen by osmosis if we increase diversity. We need to get people into the sector, but also around the table when decisions are made, and into skilled trades where they can make an impact beyond improving a business’s EDI scores. In 2021, women made up just 20% of skilled trade roles in manufacturing and 15% of middle-management roles, falling behind a still unimpressive global average of 27%.[3]

Improving this situation, and its equivalents for other underrepresented groups, has to be a priority for the industry if it is to access this positive business case for diversity and make people feel that they are valued for their skills. More equal representation across job roles was a major driver for the Women in Manufacturing charter that mandates representation on every shift.

This also applies for people with disabilities, visible or otherwise – Encirc is currently undergoing a site review to establish how to update the working environment and ensure that the culture on the factory floor is somewhere that everyone feels safe. Most recently, this has meant investing in a team of more than 60 mental health first aiders to support our teams, and make it clear that it’s okay to not be okay.

Onwards and outwards

Manufacturing and heavy industry in general have so much to gain from a more inclusive culture and workforce, but it will take a concerted and imaginative effort to achieve real diversity with the depth and breadth needed to make it a natural career option for everyone. Progress has been made in recent years, both in terms of uplifting those in the industry and awareness of the need and business case for change, but there is much further to go. In the coming years the most important product we’ll make is an industry for everyone.

[1] https://www.madesmarter.uk/resources/resource-uk-manufacturing-diversity-inclusion-guide/

[2] https://www.madesmarter.uk/resources/resource-uk-manufacturing-diversity-inclusion-guide/

[3] https://www.madesmarter.uk/resources/resource-uk-manufacturing-diversity-inclusion-guide/

‘Currently, just 26% of employees in manufacturing are women and just 13% are from minority ethnic groups.’

Lee Procter-Wright.

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