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Women make up only 28 per cent of Canada’s manufacturing labour force, but leadership training and networking programs can help change the landscape.izusek

Wenyi He was just 26 years old when she was promoted to production manager at AGI Westfield, a Manitoba-based company that makes augers for the agricultural industry. When working on the manufacturing floor, Ms. He is mostly in the company of welders. About 70 per cent of them are men – some more than double her age.

“I did have a lot of challenges since I’m young and I’m a woman,” Ms. He recalls of starting the role last year. “They think, ‘You know nothing about the [manufacturing] floor.’”

This past spring, Ms. He participated in a leadership development program operated by Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME), where she gained soft skills in communication, leadership and delegation. She says she learned that she can’t always provide solutions for the people she works with. “I want them involved. We need to brainstorm and solve the problem together.”

She’s already noticed a difference in her work, especially when it comes to streamlining production, which is an integral part of her job. “I talk to [the machine operators] very often and show them my passion for the work,” she says.

Facilitating ways for women to connect

While women’s leadership and networking programs have become common in white-collar workplaces, there is a growing recognition that traditionally male-dominated industries such as manufacturing, construction and the skilled trades should also be supporting women seeking leadership positions.

Though the leadership program Ms. He participated in wasn’t exclusive to women, CME launched a Women in Manufacturing Leadership Development Program in July, 2022.

Angela Pappin, chief transformation officer at ArcelorMittal Dofasco in Hamilton, Ont., and CME’s Women in Manufacturing Committee chair, says that leadership programs help women build confidence to excel in their roles. Women make up only 28 per cent of Canada’s manufacturing labour force, and Ms. Pappin says that the gender disparity is even more pronounced when it comes to senior and management roles. “My motivation for joining the [committee] was seeing the gender gap,” she says.

Networking has become a valuable part of Barb Willoughby’s leadership journey as a woman in manufacturing. Ms. Willoughby, director of operations at ATS Automation in Cambridge, Ont., joined a Women in Manufacturing Peer Council in 2019, just prior to the pandemic. She meets with a dozen or so women every two months across a variety of industries, from food processing to metal manufacturing, to share what they’ve learned.

“Having conversations about what processes and initiatives you’ve tried and learning from one another is one of the biggest benefits of the peer council,” she says. Through the council, she has also heard from guest speakers discussing everything from health and safety practices to how Canada’s current economic conditions are affecting the manufacturing industry.

Ms. Willoughby is also grateful for the women’s employee resource group (ERG) at her company, which was formed in 2019. ERGs are one way manufacturing companies can encourage more women to seek leadership roles and support women already in management and executive positions, she says.

“Creating that awareness that there are other women in our organization was significant. It has surprised me,” Ms. Willoughby says. “Hearing the humbleness of their stories and seeking advice, asking, ‘In this situation, what would you do?’ It’s been very inspiring.”

Why allyship is crucial

Given that the manufacturing industry is mostly comprised of men, especially in leadership roles, Ms. Pappin recognizes the crucial role that male allies play in supporting women on the job. She says it’s something that was important in her own career.

“There were men that would give me a seat at the table and get me involved,” she says. “They knew I had a voice to share my results and findings rather than someone else doing it for me.”

Ms. Willoughby encourages men in her industry to consider how they can be better allies.

“Especially within manufacturing, males need to reach out to females to expand their networks and help promote them within their organizations,” she says. “Organizations really have to focus on what they can do differently to help promote and sponsor those women so they can move on to the next level.”

For young women entering the manufacturing industry, as Ms. He did just a few years ago, she encourages them to be bold and brave.

“Don’t be afraid,” she says. “Talk, ask questions and take action.”

Ask Women and Work

Have a question about your work life? E-mail us at

Question: I keep getting passed over for new positions or promotions at my workplace. What am I doing wrong? I have always gotten good performance reviews, but I feel like I’m missing some sort of ‘X factor’ that others have. It’s really getting me down. What should I be doing to improve my chances of getting ahead in my profession?

We asked Humaira Ahmed, founder and CEO at talent development platform Locelle in Victoria, B.C., to field this one:

Without having much context, if you are getting passed over for promotions, I would recommend a few things:

1. Set up a 1:1 meeting with your immediate manager and share your desire to get a promotion. Share all your accomplishments and ask how they think you can level up. During this meeting, be sure to bring a presentation of sorts that highlights those accomplishments and achievements (in particular, where you took initiatives and/or managed projects or team). Be open and ask what you would need to do or where you can improve to get ahead.

2. Find someone within the organization that is at an executive level and seems approachable regardless of department. Ask them for a coffee chat or a mentorship opportunity. Be clear about your intentions and share that you would love to level up your career within the organization and that you admire how this person has done it. Most leaders will appreciate this and make time and share advice for getting ahead.

3. Reach out to people (on LinkedIn) in the field who are senior to share your resume and ask for feedback. Sometimes, it is how a person is perceived and other times there may be gaps in how you are communicating your achievements.

4. Work on building influence and thought leadership in the field. Offer to take initiatives, write a blog post, do some research before meetings to offer insights and head up projects. Put yourself out there, be confident and show up for yourself.

5. Make a plan. Most promotions and pay increases take time. Depending on your department and leaders, reach out proactively before any positions are posted. Share with the hiring managers you are interested in a progressive opportunity and would love to be considered. A lot of the times, folks are already doing parts of the job they are applying for and assume the responsibilities to show enthusiasm.

If you consistently put yourself out there, get feedback on your resume and communication, practice building thought leadership and get a mentor within the org as well as outside of the organization, you can identify where the gaps are or learn whether this organization is simply not a good fit.

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