Women in early manufacturing

The UK’s manufacturing industry has changed dramatically since the start of the Industrial Revolution and so has the role of women in manufacturing. In the early days, women were actively encouraged into the manufacturing industry. In fact, the origins of mass schooling date back to the industrial revolution, when women were wanted in the workforce. As it became increasingly unacceptable for children to be working long hours, large-scale low-cost childcare was needed so that mothers continued to be available to work in the factories. Records from 1833 show that girls and women made up more than half of the total number of factory workers in cotton, flax, silk and paper manufacturing in the UK. Overall, girls and women totalled nearly 57% of factory workforces. Strangely, gender inequality in terms of wages was insignificant before adulthood. Girls and boys tended to be paid the same until around the age of 16. However, by the age of 30, women could expect to be paid approximately one third of the amount the male workers received.

Not only were female factory workers paid far less than their male counterparts, but they were also prevented from joining unions. And of course they didn’t have the right to vote – that wouldn’t be granted until 1918, and even then only for women over 30 to begin with.

During and after the two world wars, the number of women in the workforce increased, as women were needed to fill the gaps left by men fighting in the war and in some cases never returning. However, with increased automation in manufacturing, many of the lower-paid jobs were no longer required, and the number of women in factories began to decline.

Gender equality is still sadly absent in manufacturing, both in the UK and beyond. Shockingly, less than 25% of the workforce in UK manufacturing are women, according to figures from the Office of National Statistics. At a time when women make up around 74% of teaching staff, and over 54% of GPs are female, the female presence in manufacturing is extremely low.


Why are women under-represented in manufacturing?

The problem starts as early as school age. Traditionally, girls have been expected to show a preference for the “softer” arts subjects, such as history, languages and music, whereas boys have been expected to study the sciences. Although there are roughly equal numbers of boys and girls taking Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects at GCSE level, it is generally far higher amongst boys at A-level. For example, only around 20% of A-level Physics candidates are girls. The proportion is slightly higher in Scotland, where around 30% of Physics A-level students are female.

Even though girls frequently outperform boys at GCSE level in STEM subjects, very few go on to study STEM subjects at A-level. In many subjects, including Science, Biology, Chemistry, Engineering, Design Technology, ICT, Computing and Statistics, a higher proportion of boys than girls were awarded A*-C grades. Research has shown that lack of confidence and a perception that boys are more dominant in these lessons deter girls from going on to study these subjects at A-Level.

Manufacturing has something of an image problem. It doesn’t tend to be promoted as an industry to aspire to work in, and girls are even less likely to be encouraged to consider manufacturing for a career than boys are. There have been a number of initiatives designed to tackle the shortage of women in manufacturing. The 2018 Year of Engineering programme aims to promote engineering as a career option. The programme is designed to encourage more young people to study relevant subjects at school and in further education. In conjunction with schools, museums and companies, the programme has been raising the profile of engineering and demonstrating the range of jobs available in the industry.


What does the manufacturing industry need to do to encourage more women to join?

In order to attract more females into engineering, the industry’s image needs to be enhanced. More and more engineering companies are setting up programmes to motivate greater numbers of girls and women to pursue a career in STEM areas. This may involve working with colleges or other organisations to raise awareness of the different jobs and career options available in manufacturing. Apprenticeship with sponsored vocational training or further education can also be used to attract talented young women into engineering and manufacturing.

Once women have joined the profession, engineering companies need to work harder to retain them. This requires supportive management teams with flexible attitudes. With many women wanting to combine a career with motherhood, there is a demand for flexible working options, such as the option to work more hours over fewer days, work part time or work from home.

With the emphasis on the high-tech fourth Industrial Revolution, there has never been a better time for girls and women to get into engineering. With changing attitudes from those already in the industry, and some perseverance on the part of girls and women joining it, there is every reason to hope that more and more women will be able to shape rewarding careers for themselves in the manufacturing industry.