The force for sustainable change presented by women in manufacturing

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Outdated assumptions and stereotypes surrounding manual labour have meant manufacturing has always been one of the most male-dominated industries in Australia. In 1998, the Australian Government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency reported that just 25.9% of its workforce was female. 

Now, CommBank’s recent Manufacturing Insights Report proves that times are changing, revealing that this number has since grown to 33%, largely due to progress made in the food & beverage, technology, and clean energy divisions.

However, the question remains – are times changing fast enough?

The current state of play

While it’s nevertheless heartening to see most manufacturing companies on track to meet diversity targets, we can’t ignore the gender disparity that still exists at the leadership level. Currently, only 20% of executive teams are female. This is despite mounting evidence that suggests diversity can positively affect organisational culture, innovation, and performance.

This number looks a little less bleak for inner-city companies reporting turnovers of over $20 million, and even more encouraging when compared to the proportion of women in executive management roles within the S&P ASX top 300 companies. A figure that amounts to little more than 17%, according to the Australian Financial Review.

The ugly reality of this statistic is that, according to the 2022 Chief Executive Women (CEW) Senior Executive Census, the figure is going backwards. In fact, it will likely take up to 100 years for women to make up at least 40% of all CEO positions on the ASX200.

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So, where does that leave women in manufacturing?

Key female-driven focuses for 2023

The path ahead in the manufacturing sector certainly looks positive with women at the helm (despite there presently being so few of them).

The Commbank Manufacturing Insights Report reveals that social initiatives, business strategy and technology investments are key focuses for female-led manufacturers in 2023. This indicates that women are increasingly invested in future-focused growth and development.

Of equal importance is the desire to improve customer acquisition and retention, evidenced by 46% of female-led manufacturers investing in sales and marketing.

However, their greatest potential perhaps lies in their ability to build momentum behind the very plight that concerns them.

Diversity creates more diversity

While staff acquisition and retention continue to be a challenge across almost every industry, female-led manufacturing has recognised the power of leveraging talent from all walks of life. So much so that female-led manufacturers are driving the charge towards creating more enriching and supportive environments. On average, a third is implementing the following three tactics:

  • Nurturing a friendly and supportive workplace culture
  • Placing a strong focus on continued professional learning and development
  • Offering flexible working arrangements

Manufacturing as an industry has also recognised that a more inclusive hiring approach is key to addressing labour shortages, with 78% having already established diversity targets.

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A sustainable force for change

Diversity isn’t the only movement being driven by the female workforce. While ESG has grown to become a priority for the manufacturing industry as a whole – evidenced by most manufacturers being on track to meet their emissions targets – female-led manufacturers are also doubling down on efforts. 50% are seeking to positively impact the planet and society through sustainability initiatives, while 23% are even seeking increased revenue through them.

The tip of the manufacturing iceberg

While it’s promising to see that progress is being made in response to the significant gender disparity experienced in one of Australia’s most male-dominated industries, it cannot be ignored that the rate of change is less than desirable.

The rewards reaped from greater diversity at the executive level are undeniable, particularly in the face of the growing urgency posed by climate change, and the cultural and flexible demands of an evolving workforce. What we’ve seen to date is a somewhat promising foundation being laid for a more equal and impactful future.

While this report speaks to only 33% of the manufacturing industry, the CommBank Manufacturing Insights Report presents an in-depth analysis of the wider sector, exploring the key challenges and opportunities at present.

For more information about the operational and financial performance, outlook, and supporting strategies and tactics, read the full report here.