Women in Manufacturing: Watch out for Mr. Roboto

Matt Vidal’s recent posting raised a number of important issues.  One he did discuss is the role of gender—namely the way it patterns where you work—in manufacturing employment.

Let’s just take a quick glance at the manufacturing industry.  Women’s share of manufacturing jobs has remained relatively stable over the past 40 years (27.4% in 1972 and 27.3% in 2012) but the share of all U.S. jobs in manufacturing fell from 24% in 1972 to 9% in 2012 so overall, women are the same share of a smaller pie.

A 2012 Brookings Report found weekly earnings in manufacturing (between 2008-2010) were, on average, $943.06, 19.9 percent higher than the non-manufacturing average of $786.40.  Men in manufacturing earned, on average, $614.50 per week net of worker and job characteristics (compared to a weekly average of $574.50 in non-manufacturing jobs).  This is compared to women’s weekly net average of $478.30 in manufacturing (and $461.20 in non-manufacturing jobs).

Even though average manufacturing wages for women are below those of men’s, they are higher there than in non-manufacturing jobs.  The NWLC reported that between 2010 and 2011, men’s annual average employment in manufacturing rose by 230,000 jobs but women’s dropped by 25,000 jobs. Importantly, women’s annual average employment dropped in the manufacturing sectors with the highest average wages (chemicals, petroleum & coal products, and computer & electronics products). In this latter sector, the disparity between women’s and men’s employment is largest: men saw gains of 20,600 jobs while women saw a loss of 8,200 jobs.

Matt’s piece cites an article in The Atlantic by journalist Adam Davidson that looks at the effects of technology on manufacturing employment.  Matt summarized one of the article’s main messages:  today’s computer-run machines factories mainly require highly-skilled workers using human discretion to manage complex, precision machines, and largely unskilled workers pushing buttons and placing parts as they tend simple machines. These new technologies create a gap between the skill sets required for the two main jobs in contemporary factories and leave little opportunity for unskilled workers to get internal training and promotion.  The jobs for unskilled workers are “safe” only as long as they remain cheaper than robots.

In manufacturing, like in many industries, “skilled” and “unskilled” maps onto worker sex.  The article features two workers at an auto parts plant:  Luke, a skilled operator who runs an advanced, computer-controlled machine who, as the factory manager explains it, uses his judgment to assure product quality.  Luke makes about $18 an hour.  Davidson writes that it’s likely Luke will be employed for a long time and make a decent wage because skilled people like him are more important than ever to manufacturing.

Then there is Maddie, a single mother and unskilled worker who works (with mostly other women) doing a job where the machine controls the quality of the part.  Maddie makes about $13 an hour.  Her unskilled job will only exist until she becomes more expensive than a machine (i.e., as technology improves and machine prices decline, Maddie’s job will disappear).

In manufacturing, it appears that women compete against the usual stereotypes about their competence. Even before they get to work, women face barriers to success because of stereotypes about their interest and ability in math and technology.  They face the prospect of differential treatment.  But unlike in other industries, women face the additional prospect of a robot taking over their work.

The upshot is that, in the absence of affordable, accessible training, technological advances might combine with gender stereotypes to wipe out women’s presence in relatively high-wage manufacturing.   A further problem for women’s employment is the failure to educate women about what American manufacturing jobs can entail—creative, math-based, computer driven work as opposed to operating heavy machinery and doing heavy lifting.

Keeping tabs on women’s experiences in manufacturing will be worthwhile, if not because it provides an illustration of individual-level implications of change at work, but also because it serves as a reminder about the gendered nature of work.

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