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Plant manager Debbie Manzano stands on the production line at Ford’s F-150 facility in Dearborn, Mich., on Sept. 24, 2018.

BRITTANY GREESON/The New York Times News Service

Straight out of college, statistics degree in hand, Debbie Manzano started working for Ford, keeping an eye on the glass production process at the company’s massive Rouge complex in Michigan.

Six Ford factories and 24 years later, after stints in engineering, production and quality inspection around the country, she’s back where she started. She’s now the boss, overseeing production of the F-150, the best-selling truck in America.

Responsible for what she calls “a little city” spanning 2.6 million square feet, with 4,300 employees, Manzano, 46, holds the rare status of being a woman at the helm of a major U.S. production facility. Ford has 28 plants in North America, with only three other women in charge.

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But as the first woman to fill the role, Manzano faces other challenges. There’s the skepticism of employees who have never had a female boss and the high expectations of employees who have always wanted one.

And there’s the challenge of how to persuade people like herself to join a company at which women have encountered hostile environments. At Ford’s factories in Chicago, women were subjected to extensive and prolonged sexual harassment, according to an investigation last year by The New York Times. Male colleagues and superiors made crude comments and gestures; some women were groped or pressured to trade sex for better assignments.

“We’re not blind: We have a lot of people under one roof, and there are lots of opportunities for things to happen,” she said when asked about sexual harassment and gender discrimination in Ford plants. “But I’m in a position to do something different about it.”

Much has been made of corporate America’s glass ceiling, and the number of top female executives has slumped after climbing in recent years. In manufacturing, the gender gap is far more basic: Women are under-represented at every level.

Brittany Poppen, a chassis engineer, checks an F-150 on the line at Ford's Rouge complex in Dearborn, Mich.

BRITTANY GREESON/The New York Times News Service

Women enter manufacturing in lower numbers than men. Sometimes, they work in factories without access to women’s bathrooms or uniforms that fit their bodies. Many complain of careers slowed or stymied by prejudice, pay inequity and family responsibilities.

Deloitte surveyed 600 female manufacturing workers last year; 71 per cent said that performance standards differ by gender, with the vast majority saying that more is expected of women. Women make up fewer than 30 per cent of manufacturing employees, and only 26.7 per cent of workers making motor vehicles and related equipment. At Manzano’s F-150 plant, just a quarter of employees are female.

By the time many amass the experience needed for management roles, it’s almost time to retire. Mary Barra, who became chief executive of General Motors in 2014, remains the only woman heading one of the world’s 10 major auto makers.

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“Women in manufacturing are much more under-represented in leadership than they are in other industries, and a lot of that stems from the fact that there are so few women in the industry able to work their way up,” said Anna Beninger, senior research director at Catalyst, a non-profit focused on women in the workplace. “There is a tremendous amount of overt bias and discrimination, which creates a really toxic environment, so a lot of women leave and never come back.”

An F-150 on the line at Ford's Rouge complex in Dearborn, Mich.

BRITTANY GREESON/The New York Times News Service

Most days, Manzano is out on the floor at 6 a.m., usually wearing dark, inexpensive clothes that can hide paint stains and comfortable shoes fit for climbing a furnace, if necessary. She covers her engagement and wedding rings with an orange woven band featuring a stitched smiley face to avoid scratching the finished trucks she inspects.

The plant, part of the longest continuously operating vehicle production site in the country, produces a new truck every 53 seconds.

Manzano doles out hugs to long-time co-workers and handshakes to new ones curious about her qualifications. She checks in on robots with nicknames like Godzilla and reviews updates about suppliers affected by the recent hurricane. In meetings, she is regularly outnumbered by men.

Debbie Manzano, centre, speaks with employees at the Ford production facility.

BRITTANY GREESON/The New York Times News Service

Manzano said she’s been lucky because she never felt uncomfortable around her co-workers, and she acknowledges how hard it is for women to get to where she is, or even want to try.

“We have to work extra hard to get females to come,” she said. Women often don’t consider manufacturing jobs because of the impression that factories are dirty, loud, and designed for male workers.

Since she was young, watching her father go to work for Ford for decades, she has wanted nothing more than to work in a factory.

She remembers her mother telling her to pursue an “easier” career, like teaching, but she studied statistics as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan and later earned a master’s degree in industrial engineering. Even in school, she stood out: In her drafting class – learning to design blueprints – she was the only woman.

Her male mentors have always been supportive, she said, but the women she turned to for advice provided a crucial “safe space.”

Female workers with concerns about harassment or other issues might hesitate to raise them to a male manager, she said.

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“They might be more scared to come forward, because they think it’s a man’s club and they’re worried about resentment,” she said. “That’s why we need women, to bridge the gap.”

Things may change, because of necessity.

In recent years, a tight labour market, a shift to high-tech manufacturing and an aging factory work force have created what Deloitte describes as the manufacturing sector’s Achilles heel. Millions of jobs could go unfilled.

Women could help fill the vacancies, according to the consulting firm. To encourage them, Manzano said, she has tried to provide female workers more networking opportunities and pushed managers to incorporate women into succession planning.

Having a female boss is an inspiration, a motivation and an important signal to the growing ranks of F-150 customers who are women, said Armentha Young, a quality operation system co-ordinator and also a 24-year veteran of Ford.

“It does give you, as a woman, a good feeling,” Young said. “The climate has changed. This says that women have arrived, we’re participating and we’re never going to go back.”

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F-150s in the final production line at Ford's Rouge complex.

BRITTANY GREESON/The New York Times News Service

Initiatives to encourage women and girls to pick up the skills and education needed for many advanced manufacturing and operations management positions have started to crop up at other manufacturers.

The American Welding Society Foundation now has a female executive director. Last year, the union for iron workers announced a paid maternity leave benefit that it said was “virtually unheard-of in the building trades.”

And, Manzano said that Ford’s internal culture has improved in the time that she’s worked there; pressure from the #MeToo movement has helped.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” she said.

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