Women in plant maintenance: How to close the talent gap

The global maintenance industry is in a state of flux – the much-cited skills shortage is real.

This is exacerbated by many experienced maintenance professionals reaching retirement age and younger generations not appearing keen to enter the field. The once-traditional maintenance industry is rapidly evolving due to emerging technologies and other factors such as sustainability.

The result is an industry that is being shaped and altered by factors beyond its control and that continues to grapple with a huge challenge: its professionals, and how to maximize their skills and potential. That is why it seems incredible that women continue to be so under-represented and, dare one say it, undervalued in the maintenance world, including plant maintenance. This status quo clearly needs to be remedied.

There are many different ways in which maintenance departments can seek to remedy the prevailing gender gap. This article will seek to explore some of the ways in which this much-needed goal can be effectively achieved.

Do your homework

Maintenance managers and HR professionals need to understand the extent of the gender discrepancy in the plant maintenance industry. Take the United States for example: in 2020, there were 575,331 Industrial Maintenance Technicians in the US with an average age of 47.

Yet, the bar graph below clearly demonstrates that the (minuscule) percentage of women in maintenance remained effectively unchanged throughout the 2010s, with tiny improvements in 2015, 2017, and 2019:

Source: https://www.zippia.com/industrial-maintenance-technician-jobs/demographics/ 

As the graph below shows, only millwright supervision, machine repairs, and flooring mechanical work were more gender-biased in favor of men than plant (industrial) maintenance:

Source: https://www.zippia.com/industrial-maintenance-technician-jobs/demographics/ 

Interestingly, women are better represented in facilities management than in the maintenance technician field – as of 2021, 23% of facility managers in the US are women. However, that is 4% down from the number of women who were in facility management roles in 2015.

Even more concerning is that female facility managers only earn 93 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts. Gender discrimination clearly continues even at higher levels within the maintenance field.

Equity not equality

Another shift that needs to occur is regarding the concept of “equality” – the emphasis should be on equity, not equality. The difference is not mere semantics. Equality presumes that everyone should be on an equal footing and, in turn, presumes that the playing field is level.

When barely 5% of plant maintenance workers in the US are female, then the playing field is clearly lopsided. An equity approach is one based on the realities of what women face in plant maintenance, as they do in many other fields.

The reason why an equity-based approach is preferable to one based on equality can be clearly seen in the bicycle-related analogy in the graphic below, as per the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation:  

Source: https://betterbikeshare.org/2019/10/24/equity-vs-equality/ 

An equity-based approach does not make presumptions that the workplace can be “fair” or “level”. Instead, it is firmly based on the realization that attributes unique to women in the workplace need to be taken into due consideration.

These can include gender-inclusive factors such as establishing clear objectives regarding hiring and promoting female workers and the language used (for example, “supervisor” instead of “foreman”) both in hiring and practice. Fortune reported in 2019 how the City of Berkeley in California had changed all its gender pronouns for all its departments, including the use of “maintenance holes” instead of “manholes”.

Think out of the box

Companies need to be creative when hiring new female talent, which means not only focusing on strictly maintenance-related credentials that have traditionally benefited male counterparts. This means a more flexible approach to maintenance-focused resumes.

A tendency to favor “traditional” resumes that focus on so-called “hard” skills and technical work experience is outdated. The industry is fast becoming technology-driven and heavier on soft skills. Women can often have formidable IT-related skills or work experience with a strong focus on customer service, for example, so the hiring process needs to focus on those strengths too.

The same flexibility should be true of managing female plant maintenance workers and their career development. Even a steadfastly conservative industry such as plant maintenance needs to consider creative ways of allowing women to grow within the field, and what better way to achieve that than to start at the top?

That means diversifying the C-suite itself. More women in top management positions within maintenance and engineering departments should probably result in (1) attracting more women into the industry and (2) diluting and helping to remedy the rampant sexism that exists in plant maintenance and maintenance generally.

Invest in female talent

There is no better investment in workers than their ability to learn, both on the job and externally. Education and on-the-job up-skilling are the two best ways to ensure that women have a better chance of making it in plant maintenance.

This education should be continuously planned and managed by means of a training needs analysis that provides a good balance of both technical skills-based training and soft skills learning, such as management and communication skills.

Mentoring is also an excellent way of ensuring that entry-level female maintenance trainees get a chance to gain skills. Mentoring doesn’t need to be limited to trainees – more experienced workers benefit from gaining further insights into other aspects of the maintenance field too, such as technology or management principles.

What is true for male workers should be doubly so for female workers, allowing the talent gap to be more effectively bridged. Remember, the focus should be on equity, not mere equality.

Provide meaningful support

Any minority group in any challenging workplace needs to be protected to some degree so that they may flourish in that environment. As such, the aim should be to establish a maintenance workspace devoid of discrimination for women. One simple administrative way to achieve this is by creating iron-clad policies and procedures in place that actively prohibit, expose, investigate, and address instances of gender discrimination.

There are other policies that will specifically benefit women and help foster a work environment in which they can flourish. These should include flexible work schedules, especially for single mothers or women who may be the primary caregivers in their households. Appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) is also important. Ill-fitting PPE may not only be uncomfortable but could even put a female maintenance worker’s life in danger.

Even the issue of menopause needs to be addressed. A British study of 159 HR leaders across the manufacturing sector found that 71% of companies did not have a menopause policy, whilst 77% of companies in the sector had no menopause-related training for line managers.

Change will take wisdom and courage

With so many skills-related challenges, does it make any sense to underutilize so much of the potential workforce merely because of gender bias? Of course not, yet this continues to be the reality for many sectors within the maintenance industry, including plant maintenance.

This revolution in the industry will require wisdom and a touch of courage for maintenance leaders to realize the full potential of women in plant maintenance. In the end, the industry will only gain from that.

After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Communications, Erin built the custom social media analysis division for the world’s largest PR measurement firm working directly with clients like Boeing, Johnson & Johnson, and GLOCK.

From there, Erin landed in computer vision startups working on products like facial recognition for loss prevention and breath detection for medically-fragile newborns. As VP of Marketing for Limble CMMS, Erin and her team get to share with maintenance teams around the world the good news that there is an easier way to manage–and get credit for–their amazing work.