As a female CEO in the steel industry, it can certainly be challenging to break new ground: after all, this is a traditionally male-dominated industry, and an old-school one at that. Most industries in the business of supply and manufacturing have men at the helm, but as women gain power, I’m confident that positive changes are abound.

There are so many reasons that more women would help the industry, but there are also reasons they tend to avoid it. My hope is that clearing up some misconceptions and making a case for gender inclusivity will attract more women to manufacturing and industrialized industries like steel.

Women in manufacturing

Women make up 47 percent of the workforce, but only 27 percent of the manufacturing industry, according to a 2015 report by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute. Women are the largest pool of untapped talent in the industry, which is facing a two million shortage of workers in the next 10 years. Recruiting talented women could help fill this skills gap.

More importantly, the proportion of women in leadership lags behind other US industries. Getting women into management is more than just an equality issue — it’s a profitability issue. Studies have found that gender diversity in leadership improves innovation, competitiveness, and yes, profit, across the board.

Many ask the question, why is diversity important and how does it drive profit? Diversity is not only about race or gender, though it may sound like it on the surface. It’s about having a talent pool from a variety of backgrounds with different experiences, women included. This variety leads to idea generation and collaboration from a team with varied perspectives; an increased number of ideas and stronger more vetted solutions. Based on varied experiences within their team, an organization has much better success with implementation and execution.

At my company, Pacesetter, the proportion of women in leadership has increased over the years, and the results have been extremely positive for our growth. By developing a diverse group of leaders, we have brought new perspectives into the organization. Diversity at the leadership level is particularly important because this team is responsible for developing their successors, who must coach rising stars and challenge them to think from a broader perspective. Diversity at this level means the organization’s plans are being challenged so that the direction of the company is best aligned with where our customers and industry will be heading.

If we think things will remain status quo we are mistaken. We must look forward and ask the deep questions regarding the evolution of everything around us. We must think forward about the upcoming changes and be agile and flexible. Diversity in leadership creates this ability and drives this philosophy.

While I say we are getting more diverse and talk about the importance of diversity, it is important to note that Pacesetter is far from where it needs to be in this arena. As we grow and develop our talent bringing in diverse perspectives is a high priority.

Misconceptions about the industry

Manufacturing is centuries old as an industry; it’s little surprise that women would be more drawn to newer industries like technology or more female-dominated jobs in the service industry, for example.

Basically, a lot of what keeps women out of manufacturing are outdated and false notions that it’s an innately labor-intensive boys club in decline. This is far from the truth, especially at Pacesetter, where our jobs are collaborative and innovation-oriented.

When candidates, new customers or suppliers walk in our doors for the first time, they are often shocked. Our headquarters doesn’t look like what you would imagine a steel company would look like, in fact, we are commonly told we look more like a tech company — sometimes even Google. Our space is very open (no cubicles) and designed to be collaborative. We also have a “Creativity Vortex” and “Innovation Retreat” that have colored walls, beanbag chairs and whiteboard walls, rooms designed to inspire creativity and idea generation. We have a gym and steel city diner, a “Steelsuem” (customer products showroom) and our history displayed throughout the building.

Our service centers surprise people as well. People from the industry commonly remark how clean and organized these locations are and that they don’t feel like the typical plant environment. All of our locations have “Can You Imagine Walls”  in prominent locations where associates share ideas they have and brainstorm off of one another. Along with our forward adoption of technology in the workplace, we believe this kind of progressive type of environment is attractive to associates and clients of all demographics.

How to attract and retain talented women

Already, 51 percent of women in manufacturing surveyed believe they have seen positive change in the industry. That’s a sign that the perception and culture is changing, with women opening up to jobs in manufacturing and companies opening up to women, too.

All of this is happening organically, but there are ways to speed up the process. The first step is to encourage this career as a viable path for all genders at an early age through education and schooling.

Secondly, the industry needs to overcome public perception as an antiquated industry.

Familiarity helps. For me, growing up in the industry erased any preconceived notions I might have had otherwise. My father, CEO at the time, would take me to check out the ice makers in hotels — if they were a certain brand, he’d proudly say “that’s likely our steel in there.” He showed me products all around me made of the steel they sold. I developed the same habit growing up. My view of the world was different as I always looked at products and wondered which could be Pacesetter steel.

Going to a steel mill as a young teen didn’t hurt either. I was fascinated by how steel is made: the multiple story furnace with what looks like molten lava, the bright orange metal be rolled and spun into a coil, and the sheer size of the mill itself. Growing up around it gave me a very different perspective, and that’s what we have to relay to potential new talent.  

My passion and our associates’ passion for what we do is what attracts talent to us and to our industry. We encourage this passion in women as well as men, and familiarity is one of the best ways to foster it. It’s already been shown that women familiar with manufacturing are two times as likely to encourage a child to pursue a career in the industry.

Internally, change begins in the C-suite with smart leadership that recruits a diverse group of talented candidates and then develops them, recognizes them and promotes them for their talent. As I’ve mentioned in my blog post on millennials, it helps to think of your workforce as individuals with needs, regardless of gender, race or age. You may just find that policies that encourage flexibility and mentorship help women succeed along with the rest of your team, too.