Technology and global expansion are playing key roles in making manufacturing an attractive field for women to join, more than ever before, said the president of a woman-owned family of companies in the industry.
Pamela Kan, president of Bishop-Wisecarver Group -- a group of Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC)-certified companies -- said the lingering perception that manufacturing requires working in a "dark, dank facility that's dirty and you're lifting heavy things" is not even close to accurate anymore. Manufacturing now offers a wide range of creative and high-tech opportunities for young women, who before might not have considered the sector as a career option, she said.
This change in perception is attributed to additive manufacturing and other automation technologies that are bringing manufacturing to the cutting edge and making it attractive to the best and brightest young minds, both male and female, Kan said. Combine these technologies with the need to stay on the cutting edge to remain competitive overseas and manufacturing is becoming a creative and exciting sector that is beginning to overcome its traditional stereotype, she said.
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"My money line is 'it's about brain, not brawn,'" she said. "It's actually a very safe, clean technologically advanced environment. That's what I'm always telling younger women. If you want to be on the cutting edge of technology, that's very much where manufacturing is."
The manufacturing supply chain is also becoming increasingly more collaborative and global, as US companies aim to compete worldwide in a more challenging economic environment, Kan said. Though she said she does not like to generalize, she does find that women have the types of skills and qualities that make them well suited to managing relationships in the new paradigm of the global supply chain.
"In order to survive, you have to have a global supply chain, you need to have strategic alliances," Kan said. "I think women manage those types of relationships well. They are bringing new shifts in creativity and management and just in terms of how things get done with partners and getting three or four sources to come together. I just think they have creative ways of solving the problem."
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Bishop-Wisecarver works with manufacturers to engineer, produce, and build custom complex assemblies, linear motion solutions, and optimal embedded intelligence systems. Kan's father started the business in 1950; it became fully women-owned and WBENC-certified in 2011, when she became the primary stakeholder.
Kan said she did not expect to go into the business when she was growing up, as her older brothers had more interest in what their father was doing than she did. But after starting her own career in retail, Kan found herself back in the family business and discovered that manufacturing did, indeed, interest her at a very basic level.
"I had to learn who I was, and what I found out was that I liked to build and grow businesses," she said. "Really, it doesn't matter so much what it is. It really is the ability to build and grow something."
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Manufacturing also requires a substantial amount of creativity, especially as it becomes more technologically advanced, she said. This is something that she stresses not only to young women but to all young people she meets in STEM-oriented events that Bishop-Wisecarver supports. Among them is the annual FIRST Robotics competition, of which the company has sponsored an all-girl team from Sacramento called, appropriately, the FemBots.
In the end you're making something," she said. "I think there is nothing more exciting than making something. That is a really cool thing. If that's what lights your fire, go for it. It's very, very creative. If you like to play with technology, then this is the perfect sandbox."
Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.