Women make for only 12% of India’s manufacturing sector, which employs nearly 27.3 million people, suggests research by GE and Avtar. While the number of women employed is low, what we don’t see are the huge strides that the 12% are making, by carving out a niche for themselves and paving the path for future generations to take on roles that exist within a traditionally male-dominated society.
We would like to take this opportunity to commend the extraordinary role women play in their communities and their workplaces. That is why, on International Women's Day we are sharing this feature on the "Women in Manufacturing", who broke the stereotype of it being a male-dominated field. We look forward to sharing their stories with hopes to inspire many more.
For this feature, we spoke to three women in leadership roles from across the industry - covering their journey into the world of manufacturing, their current work as well as their lives beyond work.
Q1: How did you commence your career in the manufacturing industry? Was it intentional or serendipitous?
Neetu: For me the choice was intentional, having pursued a degree in chemical engineering, I had a range of options to choose from in the manufacturing industry.
Sravani: I would say it was a bit of both. It definitely wasn’t sheer luck but was more of a conscious decision. The serendipitous part was joining ITC straight out of campus recruitments. I was obviously keen on a job as an engineer but I was sure I wanted to get into core engineering rather than software. This was back in 2005 and I have continued with the organisation to date.
I started off at Hyderabad in one of the HQs with projects - detailed engineering & procurement, then moved to a manufacturing unit in Bhadrachalam without a second thought, focusing on getting more on-field exposure. This is one of India’s largest single-location pulp & paper industries and I wanted to be here. Thanks to this decision and being an instrumentation engineer (which has a lot of scope) I am now experienced in power plants, paper making, and automation.
I was in operations & maintenance for a couple of years and now I’m taking care of digital transformation for the entire division - at all core manufacturing units as a member of Industry 4.0 centre of excellence.
Divjyot: Around 22 years ago, I was fortunate enough to be the first girl to crack IIT, from my city, I was determined to break the gender bias. My school was an only girls convent school, and this was a record moment for them too. Suddenly a lot of girls were being redirected to me for career counselling. I started mentoring them to participate more in engineering professions, and to go out of their homes to pursue professional studies. At the end of my engineering degree, I was determined to go into the core sector, to continue the streak of women operating in traditionally male-dominated sectors. This translated to many firsts, such as first shop floor manager for the division, first operations head etc. While I was nervous in some ways, I also knew that I could do it. My parents always believed in me, and there were many girls looking up to me, which made me keep at it and flourish in the sector.
Q2. Did you face any challenges, since manufacturing is still considered a male-dominated field? How did you tackle them?
Neetu: Yes, there were definitely some challenges such as - gender-based pay gaps, fewer opportunities to advance, lack of support when it came to juggling work and family responsibilities etc.
Despite such challenges, I managed to persevere, through self-motivation and moving forward towards accepting things as they flowed and opportunities that came my way.
To tackle sexism, one needs to learn to not focus on what people say behind your backs. Instead, surround yourself with people who understand you and support you. Learn to love yourself, regardless of the expectations society has from you.
Sravani: I agree, manufacturing is still a male-dominated industry. The ratio is still skewed, but I have also seen ITC recruit a lot of women over the years. Back when I got recruited I was the only female engineer in the entire batch and now I see the intake of women has increased.
One of the challenges I see is that a lot of manufacturing units are not predominantly in cities and this gets difficult for anyone - not just women, but of course, it can be tougher on women to make the shift.
I have observed that entry-level positions see a lot of women join, then it gets lesser towards mid-management levels. This has a lot to do with their families as well
To tackle it I would say, there has to be a mindset shift where women don’t see these hurdles but as challenges to take on. They need to help their families understand the importance of these roles more and garner their support.
Divjyot: Of course, the challenges were immense - such as walking out of the factory to even use a ladies' washroom, challenging men who would get their egos hurt if they had to take instructions from a female manager, getting your hands dirty on the machines - when you’ve never even washed utensils in your mother's kitchen…The job is physically demanding too, working in factories right in the middle of nowhere etc.
I was always in a situation, with very few women in the room and many a time you will have to be your own mentor, as there may not be role models around for you to look up to.
But I would like to highlight three things:
- Believe in yourself. There will be times, you will feel you can't do it. But if you believe in yourself, others will believe in you. This is not only true for this industry but any profession or stage of life.
- Always leave on a high, because you are setting an example for the others behind you. Now, you can only do two things - either you deepen the bias or you can break the bias. The choice is yours.
- Eventually, it boils down to common sense, being reasonable with your team, ability to learn and pick up, and doing what is right for the organisation.
These are the guiding tenets.
Q3. What is your current profile & what does a typical day at your current job look like?
Neetu: I’m currently a deputy general manager - digitization & services in procurement at Hikal Ltd.
I come with 16+ years of experience in Global Sourcing/ Procurement /Cost modelling / Digitization/Services/ Supply Chain Management from Consumer Goods, FMCG, Industrial gas, Plastics and Chemical Industries.
I’m spearheading the organisation's digitization and services in Supply Chain management.
I’m responsible for identifying key performance indicators to derive the best value from vendors for business and customers and ensure the alignment happens.
Sravani: I’ve been with ITC since 2005, having spent 12 years as an Instrumentation Engineer. Today I handle automation at all levels-from field instrumentation to controllers and servers, building logic etc Currently I’m leading the integration of all automation across divisions.
My day-to-day responsibilities include caring for my family and heading to the factory for work. My in-laws live with me and over the years that has been a huge help. We all contribute to the household chores equally including my son and husband. We also live about 5 mins from the factory where both my husband and I work. My office environment is collaborative and we deal with all departments and units including those that are not directly manufacturing.
Work involves coordinating with vendors on new technology which is followed by lots of tech training for internal teams, so they can take on tech activities at their units as well. Over the years I’ve learnt how to interact with people across the board and we all look at each other as partners. There is no hierarchy.
Divyjyot: Right now I am doing multiple things that are driven by my passion for wellness. The first 14 years of my career were in manufacturing, setting up factories, product development and commercialisation and finally moving towards sales and channel management. Since I was involved in launching a new category/business, it taught me a lot of things about starting up and I developed an acumen for learning.
After 14 successful years in a corporation, I started my own venture - www.toughlikeamom.com, which focuses on overall wellness through various programs. The idea is to reach out to as many women and men, so they are enabled with tools to handle their overall wellbeing, whether physical or mental. My current job is a mix of adventure, creativity, learning and rigour. Right now I am at an early stage of my venture and there are more questions at the moment than answers. My current phase would be best described as a hustler. I am always talking to startups, mentoring them, understanding ideas, helping and connecting people in whichever way their companies can leverage.
Q4. What is your biggest professional achievement/most exciting project you have worked on so far?
Neetu: My biggest achievement was winning the global award for one of the best projects for low-cost country sourcing.
Sravani: ITC has always given me equal opportunities throughout my time here. Even when I joined as a fresh graduate, I was given an opportunity to travel to Spain. In manufacturing, one rarely receives such opportunities. I travelled to Barcelona for 3 months to help with the dismantling of a machine and my association with that machine continued for a long time after.
I now think of it as my pet project since - I was not only a part of dismantling it, I then had to ship the entire machinery back to India and needed to monitor its overhaul, once that was done I was taking care of its operations and maintenance for another 3 years. Even now when I visit that machine floor I feel like I know every part of the machine since I’ve seen it rebuilt from scraps - that's a very very rare experience. The machine is still being used and is one of the prime producers. Even though I worked on other projects, the machine association is special.
My next big achievement has been getting into Industry 4.0 - while leading the integration of all automations across divisions.
Divyjyot: The most exciting project is the one I am currently involved in because it marries my passion, my skills and my experiences very beautifully. However, If I were to talk about past achievements, it would be running two different businesses of varying natures - when I launched Fabelle Chocolates for ITC. One of the product lines was so premium and handcrafted that it had to be a semi-skilled industry deploying 100s of workmen, whereas, on the other hand, I was putting up a whole factory of 100 crores, with world-class automation, only 3 people to operate the whole plant. Both being done at the same time required quite a shift in the thought process as well as creativity and approach. I thoroughly enjoyed that part of my projects.
Q5. What are some suggestions you’d make to both organisations & women wanting to build careers in the manufacturing industry- how can they build a better workplace?
Neetu: My suggestions for both organisations & individuals would be
• Take firm steps to prohibit sexual harassment. Creating clearly defined sexual-harassment policies, instituting complaint procedures, making harassment training in-person and interactive, and conducting bystander awareness training are all needed.
• Ensure equality in pay and promotions. Pay audits, greater transparency and setting current wages without regard to past salary history will help.
• Improve family-friendly policies. Benefits such as paid family and medical leave, flextime help workers balance their tasks at work with those at home and reduce women’s likelihood of leaving their jobs.
• Support training and re-skilling. Increasingly, well-paying manufacturing jobs require a college degree, at a minimum. Companies should create apprenticeship programs for college students and offer tuition reimbursement for employees.
Sravani: To build a career in manufacturing for women, organisations should focus on providing the necessary infrastructure to make them feel they are in safe and secure hands. And also visibility of a career progression can help make women continue their careers in manufacturing.
Women who are already in manufacturing should start accepting the ground realities in manufacturing industries and focus on the scope of learning, dealing with challenges and scope of proving themselves rather than comparing it with infra available in other white-collar jobs.
This can help in building better workplaces.
I also think as individuals we need to stick around and be prominently present in these spaces to be able to take on opportunities that present themselves.
Divyjyot: For women - acknowledge your needs and accept the fact that you are different. I would say be more vocal about your needs as it is difficult for others to anticipate and accommodate the changes that are required. For example, all it took was for me to escalate or point out the fact that there was no ladies' washroom on the shop floor, this wasn’t something that naturally occurred to the management. Once they knew the issue, they resolved it for me.
Don't try to prove yourself to be the man, just be yourself and put organisational goals at the top and lead by example.
For organisations - From my personal experience, I had hired 70% women workforce for one of my factories, and I experienced record levels of low attrition, low absenteeism, low-quality issues. While this might be very subjective to the industry being discussed, when you are open to hiring more women, the quality of selection will go up, you will have 50 % more pool to choose from, and you will get creative and distinct ways to operate in your business, which have not been tried before.
Q6. How do you ensure a work-life balance?
Neetu: Below are the things I do:
- Talk it out with your employers, especially with regards to late working hours.
- Proper delegation of work
- Draw a line between home and work
- Make some time for yourself during the day
Sravani: In my view, work-life balance is very subjective.
Hobbies can be good enablers for work-life balance.
These hobbies can help in avoiding overthinking about office work even after returning home.
I developed hobbies like candle-making, reading, writing personal blogs and even took up nutrition and wellness - as a hobby and was able to lose weight gradually and sustain for the long term
Divyjyot: Honestly, it is a personal choice, and has nothing to do with the industry you are in. Don't strive for the perfect schedule; strive for a realistic one. Some days, you might focus more on work, while other days you might have more time and energy to pursue your hobbies or spend time with your loved ones. Balance is achieved over time, not each day. Some of the tips that might come in handy are:
1. Do not compare yourself with others as they might have different situations.
2. Take help of support wherever you can
3. Work-life balance means different things for different people, based on the life stage they are at. Be clear about what it means to you.
We would like to thank each of these extraordinary women for sharing their stories with us. They are truly inspiring the future of Women in Manufacturing. We hope that by sharing more of these insightful stories we can build a wonderful community of women entrepreneurs on Venwiz.
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