Drive gender equality, drive growth in the foundation industries

Two female engineers discussing a project in an industrial office while looking at documents pinned on a glass wall.

This International Women’s Day, we need to urgently address how we can attract and retain more women in these important industries.

The innovation demands for the UK’s foundation industries are huge. To achieve net zero targets, we need to:

  • optimise processes
  • integrate state-of-the-art digital technologies
  • re-invent how these businesses operate.

Meeting these ambitious targets requires the very best talent in a strong, diverse workforce. But while other industries, such as manufacturing, have made grounds in gender diversity, the foundation industries remain heavily dominated by men.

The foundation industries produce the materials that make up everything around us:

  • metals
  • glass
  • paper
  • cements
  • ceramics
  • chemicals.

But for industries that directly affect both genders equally, there is an alarming lack of diversity in the workforce.

Gender split

Recent research on equality, diversity and inclusion in UK foundation industries revealed that in 5% of foundation industry businesses there are no female employees. None at all.

This gender split is also mirrored at higher levels of the business, with 59% of foundation industry businesses reporting no female owners or partners. With only 5% of businesses having two or more.

Across the board, female employees are a minority in the workforce. Where they are represented, they tend to be in non-production roles, such as:

  • administration
  • support services
  • HR
  • finance.

If these gender diversity issues are not tackled, and soon, there is a very real danger that the sector will be ill-equipped to deal with upcoming challenges. Therefore, being unable to take advantage of opportunities for growth.

While there have been pockets of positive action, firm-level efforts alone are not enough, we need sector-wide collaboration for significant transformation in the timescales required.

Attracting women into the foundation industries

Historically, the foundation industries were in the main part dirty, extreme environments that did not encourage female workers. But these industries have changed and continue to evolve, it’s time to consign this out-dated image to the history books.

We need coherent, centralised messages to women and girls that present the foundation industries as an attractive, rewarding and inspiring career choice.

More and more, the skills needed in this sector are in innovation and use of new technology. This is to create cleaner processes, the development of new markets and business models to ensure competitiveness, and leadership on sustainability challenges.

This starts in schools with initiatives that demystify the sector and provide positive female role models who show young girls these are industries with a bright future for them.

The transforming foundation industries (TFI) challenge is working with some fantastic projects, including:

  • STEMettes, which inspires young women and non-binary people to explore careers in science, technology, engineering and maths
  • Engineering Development Trust, an education charity that works with industry partners to offer young people industrial placements and other active learning experiences
  • The Girls Network, which empowers girls from the least advantaged communities by connecting them with a mentor and network of professional role models who are women.

Beyond school, the Future Leaders Group is a group of early career professionals who are passionate about transforming the foundation industries.

They are demonstrating that, while there are opportunities for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) university graduates, these are industries that require a variety of skills and there are many opportunities through apprenticeships.

Retaining women in the workplace

We must also work harder to retain the highly skilled women already operating in the foundation industries. As well as raising the profile of women in industry, women’s network groups can play a particularly important role in providing support and mentoring.

Glass container manufacturer Encirc, for example, established a network championing gender quality and developed ‘Women with Bottle’, a series of interviews with female members of the team.

And Tata Steel has its Women of Steel network and podcast, providing role models to those early in their careers.

There are quick fixes to be made, such as offering personal protective equipment in more than just standard male sizes. Also addressing a lack of women’s changing facilities to create a more inclusive environment.

But there are more complex issues around retention, like how we can discourage women from moving to other sectors where progression is more visible. Also encouraging them to return after maternity leave or a career break.

These challenges require systemic changes and a cross-sector approach.

Creating a network for female leadership

Traditionally, the foundation industries have operated very much in silos. But the TFI challenge is facilitating collaboration, so industries can learn best practice from each other and share in the creation of a positive sector image.

The TFI challenge is supporting HR teams and senior leaders within business to take positive action and develop a more inclusive culture. Consultation across the industries aims to shape and formalise recruitment and retention policies for women in the workforce.

Crucially, we are running a leadership programme for women in the foundation industries that starts later this year. This will help arm women with the tools and confidence to break through to those higher leadership positions within the industries.

Our aim is that, by doing so, they will also provide role models to the younger workforce and a growing network of women across the sector.

It’s time to champion change

The foundation industries are in desperate need for more women in senior positions but, with a gender disparity that is currently so vast, it is not enough for only women to call for change. Until we have more women at board level, we need male advocates for greater gender diversity, too.

So, this International Women’s Day, let’s hear from both men and women about how we can drive towards greater diversity and equality.

It’s time for the foundation industries to come together to create a clear vision for the future that embraces the research and innovation of new technology, and establishes more pleasant, inclusive environments.

In doing so, we not only encourage opportunities for women, but we also create a better, more productive environment that benefits everyone.

The transforming foundation industries challenge is delivered by Innovate UK.

If these gender diversity issues are not tackled, and soon, there is a very real danger that the sector will be ill-equipped to deal with upcoming challenges.

Top image:  Credit: TommL, E+, Getty Images

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