In Rosie's Honor: A Call for More Women in the Growing US Manufacturing Sector

Last week marked the 70th anniversary of the publishing of Norman Rockwell's iconic "Rosie the Riveter" painting on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Rosie, with her tools on her lap and strong muscles clad in denim, became a symbol for a movement and the number of working American women nearly doubled between 1940 and 1944. The first generation of Rosies went to work to support the war effort and many took on the factory jobs typically reserved for men, but open to women as more and more men deployed to combat.

Many of these Rosies' stories can be found on the National Park Service's website dedicated to American World War II Home Front. A favorite story is that of Delana Close. Delana worked 10 hour shifts at a manufacturing company producing 155 millimeter howitzer field guns. She was assigned to a thirty-five foot long boring. A huge pan filled with oil kept the machine greased and cool. For 10 hours, Delana would balance on the edge of the oil pan so she would be tall enough to see the gun barrel she was working on. From her perch, she would bore out a hole for the gun's breach lock. Her work had to be perfect. A mistake of one-one thousandth of an inch could mean death for an American soldier on the battlefield. Delana was the only woman to ever work that machine. And, when the war was over, and Delana finished her last shift, her foreman shook her hand and said, "You were the best man I ever had."

When the men returned from war, Delana and many of the other Rosies were pushed out of their factory jobs and returned to life in positions society deemed more acceptable for women.

Today, a full 70 years since Rosie the Riveter first graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, the same stigma surrounds American manufacturing jobs.

But far from its reputation as dark, dirty and dangerous, manufacturing in the US today is thriving and high-tech. Over the past three years, the US has added more than half a million manufacturing jobs. Despite recent slowdowns in growth, manufacturers are still experiencing a steady climb and anticipate consistent business conditions. In addition, more jobs are coming from firms who are bringing production to the US.

There are a variety of factors that contribute to the growing strength of the manufacturing sector including a shrinking wage gap between the US and China, an increase in shipping costs and a surge in shale gas drilling which provides the US with a wealth of inexpensive domestic energy.

But one simple reality is that while the US manufacturing sector grows, the number of women working in the sector is not following that trend. Although women hold about half of the jobs in the US economy today, they occupy less than 25 percent of the STEM - science, technology, engineering and math - jobs. In fact, only 30 percent of the estimated 14 million Americans who work in manufacturing are women.

These numbers are especially striking when juxtaposed with the number of women in manufacturing today who are pleased with their jobs. According to a recent study released by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, a majority of women in the manufacturing sector report being highly satisfied with their careers. A full 75% of the women surveyed agreed that the manufacturing sector offers interesting and rewarding career opportunities. Importantly, one of the reported reasons for women's contentment with careers in manufacturing is the ability to balance work and family obligations.

This research is a significant step in debunking the long-standing myths that manufacturing is not a suitable career for women and that it is not conducive to family life. And proving these stereotypes false is especially important for two reasons: First, women have a major role in the American workforce today and, secondly, there are many thousands of high-skill, highly compensated jobs to fill.

A new study by the Pew Research Center shows a major sea change in the role of women in the workforce. Women, the study found, are now the single income or primary breadwinners in 40 percent of American households with children under 18 - that's a record high.

At the same time, Deloitte and others have noted that approximately 600,000 manufacturing jobs are going unfilled in this country. The problem of the "skills gap" - manufacturing sector employers looking to hire, but unable to find qualified, skilled workers - cannot and should not be solved by focusing on only one half of our country's population.

Thus, the compelling combination of the newly high number of women excelling in the workforce, the number of women who are pleased with their jobs in manufacturing and the glut of open manufacturing jobs provides a unique opportunity to attract more top-tier female talent to the manufacturing sector.

Returning to the Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute study, a strong majority of the women surveyed expressed concern that the manufacturing sector does not do an adequate job of presenting itself to women candidates.

This is a problem that begins in grade school and continues into the professional workplace. Research shows that boys and girls in fourth grade report the same level of interest in science, but, by eighth grade, boys are twice as likely as girls to be interested in pursuing STEM careers. It has also been determined that women in the science, engineering and mathematics fields in academia who have at least one mentor perform better than those who do not have a mentor. Tragically, as many as 1 in 5 female professionals in the US do not have a mentor.

In honor of Rosie's 70th anniversary and that first generation of Rosies who ventured into the factories during World War II, we should make a commitment as a nation to support women in STEM education and careers.

I am proud to be the program director for the Precision Metalforming Association's Women in Manufacturing (WiM) initiative. Launched in 2011, WiM is dedicated to providing a community to support women currently engaged in or considering careers in manufacturing. WiM members share perspectives, gain cutting-edge industry information, develop personal and professional skills in leadership and communication, and participate in mentoring programs and network with industry peers at online and in-person.

Last summer, a space rover named Curiosity landed on the surface of Mars. The name Curiosity was suggested by a 12-year-old girl from Kansas who submitted an essay as part of a NASA naming contest. "Curiosity," she wrote, "is an everlasting flame that burns in everyone's mind....Curiosity is the passion that drives us through our everyday lives."

Today, inspired by the legacy of Rosie the Riveter and by the little girl who wrote that essay and who dreams of studying math and science and college, I hope you'll join us in a commitment to support women in growing US manufacturing sector.