3 Women in Manufacturing and their success – Midlands Edition

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We are here to celebrate successful Women in Manufacturing and as a female-led Business we feel happily obliged to do so! 

 

The Manufacturing Industry in February 2020 contained 74% Men and only 26% Women.

Many people believe that one of the reasons for the low amount of Women in Manufacturing is due to the lack of representation in the workplace and the media – including celebrating female role models in the industry. After speaking to Apprentices in our blog there is a definite discussion needed around the education system and pushing STEM roles at this stage as well as a discussion within the Industry itself; sharing positive experiences.

Another contributing factor is the need to have more representation in the form of blogs, articles, news and media coverage – even searching for royalty free imagery of ‘Women in Manufacturing’ came up with little to no results…

 

We need to be able to read and celebrate these motivating women that exist out there as this will encourage others that it is possible to be successful in a male dominated sector and continue to bridge that gap; having those role models really is crucial to young women. If they can see someone else like them in the sector succeeding and thriving, then why can’t they? 

So we wanted to do just that, by talking to 3 Businesses in the Midlands proudly run by Women and ask them: What does it take to get to where they are? 

 

 
 

We spoke to Emma Hockley, the MD of Big Bear Plastic Products Ltd based in Droitwich, Worcester:

 

Tell us about yourself, how have you got to where you are today? 

E: “I work for Big Bear Plastic Products Ltd, a manufacturing business specialising in the design, development and production of technical thermoplastic components using vacuum-forming and compression forming technology. I was recently promoted to Managing Director, following 6 years working in various roles across the business, but most recently as Sales Director. Big Bear was founded by my father, Gerald Bloom, and so with my appointment as MD we are able to establish a strong succession plan and map a long-term future for our business. 

Admittedly, it has been something of a baptism of fire, since Big Bear is actually the first manufacturer I have worked for; my previous roles could not have been more different and my education was also not designed with manufacturing in mind! I completed my A levels (in English Lit, French and Spanish), followed by a degree in English Lit and Spanish at the University of Leeds.

After uni I landed a work experience job with the PR department at Harrods – and then worked my way up to eventually become Buyer for Perfumery & Cosmetics, which was the largest buying division in the store with a turnover of c.£58m, and then Head of Marketing for the whole of the Beauty division. 

 

 
 
Image from Big Bear Plastic Products Ltd. Website
 

When I first started at Big Bear I felt totally unprepared, having come from a completely different world. But the more I understood the business the more I realised that my time at Harrods had actually given me valuable training in many of the skills I needed. Ultimately, business is about keeping your customers happy, and if there is one thing Harrods does well, it is customer service!

Harrods was high pressured, fast paced, and expectations were high – it was a very slick operation. Unlike manufacturing, there were a lot more women in senior roles and I had the privilege of working for two female bosses who were very tough, but totally inspiring and who definitely pushed me and educated me on so many levels.” 

 

How did you get into working within Manufacturing and what enticed you to choose this industry over others? 

E: “I can’t really say that I chose to end up working in Manufacturing…it was more by accident than by design! My husband and I decided to move back to Birmingham before our son was born, in order to be close to our families. When I was ready to go back to work, I thought a daily commute to Harrods would be a bit much!

So I started doing some marketing work at Big Bear…I re-launched the website and wrote new marketing collateral. The more I learned about the business, the more questions I asked, the more interested I became and it took off from there. I started working with the sales team and began to raise the profile of the business with new customers.” 

 

As you will know, Women represent just 26% of people working within Manufacturing. After your promotion to Managing Director of Big Bear Plastic Products how has your journey to this position been in terms of being in a superior role over a predominantly male industry? 

E: “I have found it quite difficult, because not only am I a woman in a predominantly male business, I am also the boss’s daughter! Not to mention that I started with no previous experience of manufacturing. So I had a massive case of imposter syndrome and it has taken me a long time to build my confidence to where it was when I was in a senior role at Harrods feeling completely sure of myself and what I was doing.

I have worked hard to build strong relationships with my colleagues and to establish my own style and way of working. One of the most challenging things I have found is questioning the status quo, and not being brushed away or fobbed off with a “because that’s how it is” style of answer…I had to keep pushing, and it has taken a lot of persistence and determination to get to a point where I can say “I’m sorry but I don’t accept that…” 

 

From the beginning of your career to now, have you come across any challenges working within Manufacturing and how you have overcome them?

E:“Oh my goodness, absolutely loads! There is always something to deal with, it seems that it’s never straightforward! Just when I think I’ve got the hang of it something else happens which will be a whole new learning curve. But I suppose that is what makes life interesting… and ultimately, you have to get high quality parts out of the door on time, and not let the customer down. Of course, things go wrong, but to overcome them, generally it’s a case of bringing your team together and focusing everyone’s mind on the problem at hand.”

Lastly, could you give us some inspirational advice to any young female who is looking to start her career within the Manufacturing/Engineering Industries? 

E: "I didn’t start my own career in Manufacturing, and I do wish I had had the opportunity to have more “hands on” experience working in the factory. If I was starting again then I would definitely spend more time on the shop floor understanding the processes and production side of the business. Having said that, does it matter that I don’t know how to operate a mould machine? Not really, because I have an experienced team around me who do a brilliant job, and I bring other skills which the business needs also.”

Take criticism – ask for it, learn from it and do better next time. Keep going, you will get knocked back and you will feel like you can’t do it but you can!

    “Most importantly though, I believe if you bring lots of energy and enthusiasm to whatever you are doing, the opportunities will definitely come.”
 
 

 

We then spoke to Marie Palmer, a Director at Cast Iron Welding Services based in Leicester. She is very passionate about the representation of Women in the industry as well as Apprenticeships and she kindly shared her experiences with us: 

 

How did you get into working in the Manufacturing Industry? 

M: “I was in Legal working for a Solicitors for many years and my route into working in the Engineering industry happened to be a process improvement project, particularly a new computer system enabling better traceability and communications. It was a challenge as it involved changing a lot of internal systems that were very paper based. After successfully carrying that project out my job evolved; over time I was given more responsibilities due to my background such as the quality assurance side of the business, accreditations, etc. Now as Director, I assist the MD in managing all operations carried out within CIWS.  

I am not a trained engineer; however, I have a good skill set including what they call the ‘helicopter approach’ – which allows me to see the overall picture when having a problem which I need to find a solution to. I have a varied role in my position at an SME including being in charge of H&S too. Not one day is the same!”

Along your Career Journey – have you had any issues/challenges along the way working within a male-dominated environment?  

M: “It was initially quite intimidating so I think you have to be confident and ask questions. For instance, if I was needing help with a technical side of the business I would need to speak with the technical team of course, who happen to be all male. However I’ve always found that if you showed an interest, want to understand how it all works and asked the right questions they were great at embracing the change and helping me.

I have been fortunate on a day to day basis but I do think that my experiences of attending exhibitions and being on the sales side that women are a minority. Sometimes you may not be given the consideration because of not having the engineer or technical background, it is something I have come across however I use it as a challenge – I am going to ask more questions and make you engage with me!  

Marie in Mexico when setting up their franchise: “I was fortunate enough to have a tour of a power station, the cylinder heads that we remanufacture fit on the engine behind me.”

 

I joined Made in the Midlands in 2019 and it was one of the best things I could have done. As it’s geared around the Manufacturing Industry it’s very male dominated of course – my first intro meeting (before the likes of zoom) I remember walking in to the room full of men. It was a bit daunting but everyone was so welcoming and I felt comfortable straight away. I have connected with lots of different people from different companies – I’ve had such a positive experience so far.

For me, trying to find organisations that have the positive approach to diversity and equality is one of the best things I have chosen to do – it’s given me the confidence in putting myself out there. Women do have a strong place in this industry and nothing should put you off.”

 

I know you are passionate about the representation of females within the industry, do you have any inspirational words of advice to any aspiring women in manufacturing?

Try and talk to as many people as possible; don’t be afraid to connect with people and ask questions – we all have transferrable skills and something to bring to the table.

 

By having this in the back of your mind you have to take the leap and see what opportunities are there. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a traditional engineering background – it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply! Women are problem solvers and have an organisational way of thinking which fits within the Engineering industry. The jobs and opportunities available are very vast and you need a good cross section of different skills and abilities in any business in the industry, so take that leap and don’t hold back!

 

And lastly we spoke to our very own – Hana Robertson – to hear her experiences along her career journey up to HanaTech:

 

 

Hana studied BEng & BCom Manufacturing Engineering and Business @ University of Birmingham where she covered principles such as Computer Aided Design & Manufacturing, World Class Manufacturing & Total Quality Management. From here she gained much industry experience, progressing through different corporate operational and improvement roles to senior leadership roles such as Head of Digital.

 

We asked Hana more about her background: Why did you choose to work within a STEM role and within Manufacturing?

H:“I do have a vague memory of a STEM workshop day, in Year 9 before choosing my GCSEs, which looking back was great considering I attended an all-girls school. This must have influenced me, as I chose an A level in Design Technology along with Maths, so I guess I was always destined to have a career in the engineering sector. I’ve always enjoyed problem solving and creating solutions. Unfortunately the STEM workshop didn’t influence many as only 4 of us took DT a A level and I was the only female from my year to do an engineering degree. There were only 3 females including myself on the degree intake of around 80/90 people.

It didn’t put me off though, in fact I think it inspired me more to work hard and prove the value I had to bring.

 

Relating back to my degree – I found the course really interesting. It was an end-to-end degree from design principles, solution prototyping, marketing and manufacturing – right through to finance. Taking a design concept right through to the end product was really rewarding and felt meaningful to me. Most people went into project/business management with my degree, but I liked the manufacturing environment.

I was fortunate enough to join a graduate scheme at Tarmac where I spent the first 8 years of my career progressing through operational and improvement roles, visiting dozens of quarries, asphalt, concrete and block plants throughout the UK during the time. I loved the straightforward, practical and hands-on ‘get on with it’ culture and met some amazing people.

 

What were your challenges or experiences in managing teams that were male dominant?

H: “It was my experience at Tarmac where I soon learnt what style would work and what approach to take, which I’ve built on during my career journey. Not only was Tarmac male dominated, particularly out in the operational roles, I held a change role from very early on as part of a national continuous improvement initiative and we all know that change is not easy.

I remember a certain quarry manager asking me:

What can you tell me about how to run my quarry?”

to which I calmly answered:

I don’t know about your quarry yet, but having visited many others I’ve seen a lot of good practice and not so good, that I am happy to share. Can we go and have a walk round now please?”

I think if I would have gone in as a head strong female leader I wouldn’t have had a good response and gained resistance. Instead I concentrated on shifting the focus of the conversation away from ‘who knows more’ back to the workings of the quarry and found that walking round the sites with these proud managers, asking lots of questions and making meaningful observations started to break down the initial barriers. I also didn’t take offence, and learned to grow broad shoulders.

I like to understand why people think or behave the way they do such as change and the notion of ‘comfort zones’ – which is why I focus on change management at HanaTech. This experience gave me a great foundation to go on and lead male technical teams such as the IT department at IESA, which was my last corporate role.

Even then I was faced with a few ‘techies’ who tried to challenge what I knew about a particularly technical aspect of IT infrastructure for example, to which I replied:

“is that not why we hire you? Talk me through our current set up, lets discuss the constraints and the business case, and then leave me as your manager to make something happen”.

Unfortunately for one individual, the fact that he had a female leader did not work for him and he left, but that’s ok too.

I’ve learned to be successful you need to have the right team around you who are engaged and committed. I am good at creating a vision and getting the team behind it, as well as not being afraid to ask the ‘silly’ questions that other managers may not ask.

 

Why do you think that there are less Women in Manufacturing and STEM roles?

H: “I find this hard to answer as I have such a bias towards the industry. But reeling off the stats earlier shows just how low the percentage of females even taking the subjects are let alone starting a career within STEM. 

I think that there are women out there that don’t want to enter the Manufacturing sector due to their perception of the environment or perhaps feeling intimidated. I mentioned earlier some situations where having broad shoulders has helped, but it could have as easily put someone off.

In my time I have conducted many site visits and attending a male-dominant workplace can have its downsides, for example the odd characteristic ‘inappropriate’ calendar on display in a locker room or kitchen area, which of course could be very off-putting to potential new staff if they were female; it’s these things which let the perception down at a time where there is a push for workplace diversity.

Women in Tech

 

However, I think the pace of change in technology could bring more females into STEM roles, particularly Technology roles. As a Head of Digital I was pleased when I started to see more female software developer applications coming through and I hope that this is only on the increase as digital technology becomes more creative and focussed on user experience and consumer behaviour.

I’d imagine that it will be sectors such as B2C, retail, finance and services that see the increase in females first, with manufacturing unfortunately trailing behind for the perception reasons I’ve mentioned. However, I think with the drive on sustainability and the circular economy, this could bring more females into manufacturing and STEM roles, as this publicity is raising awareness of just how much direct impact you could make in these roles and in this fantastically important sector.

 

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