Rosie’s Time Has Come…Again

A friend of mine who considers himself a “recovering” member of a certain religion contends the vast majority of his church’s current troubles might have been alleviated, if not eliminated altogether, had its leaders done one thing differently over the past millennium.  “All the church leaders needed to do,” my friend contends, “was to make sure women had a seat at the table.  But they refused to treat them as if their ideas had any real value or if their opinions mattered.” 

Now, my intent here is not to discuss the wisdom of my friend’s thoughts or, heaven forbid, debate religion with anyone.  It’s to take that whole concept – the notion that women should be given a seat at the table – and apply it to manufacturing.

Did you know, this past week we celebrated the 70th anniversary of Rosie the Riveter?  In a Saturday Evening Post edition dated the last week of May, 1943, a Norman Rockwell painting of a woman the nation would soon come to know as “Rosie” – a brawny, muscular woman in denim overalls casually eating lunch, her rivet gun on her lap, and her foot resting firmly atop a copy of Adolph Hitler’s manifesto, Main Kampf – appeared for the first time ever and breathed life and gave face to someone who had been casually introduced to us just a few months prior in a song by bandleader, Kay Kyser.

A few weeks after Rockwell’s painting hit the newsstands, Rosie would become a little less brawny and a lot more famous in a now-classic propaganda poster commissioned by Westinghouse Electric, titled “We Can Do It.” But the fact remains that 70 years ago this week Rosie the Riveter was celebrating her national coming out party as a working class icon, while America was only starting to realize it had just found itself a new sweetheart.

Rosie, of course, would soon become the embodiment of American manufacturing, and history would soon learn that she and the millions of factory-working women she represented would end up being every bit as responsible for America winning the war as war bonds, the Enola Gay, or D Day.

Alas, we all know what happened just a few years later, and what’s been happening since.  The war ended, Rosie traded in her welder’s apron for a nice cotton one, and manufacturing returned to being, as it had been before the war, a man’s game and a man’s world.  And, alas, that’s the way things have been ever since.

But my question today is, why?  Why have women in manufacturing remained something of a cultural/industrial oddity, if not a full-fledged oxymoron – especially manufacturing as we know it today?

For the past 40 years women have slowly but surely made their mark on all aspects of American business.  More and more over the past few decades, they’ve been earning corner offices, running and owning their own companies, and emerging as an exciting new breed of entrepreneur and job creator. 

Only in manufacturing do women continue to represent a clear, and some might even say an alarming minority – especially on the shop floor or in the factory; and especially now that manufacturing has become cleaner, smarter and far less labor-intensive than it was even a decade ago.

And again I ask, why?

Todays’ woman brings so much value to the table for manufacturers.  These days, more often than not she’s just as driven for success, just as motivated to carve out a career for herself, and if you’re to believe the national statistics, considerably better educated than her male counterpart.

Look, I know that there have always been women in manufacturing, and that many of them continue to have an indelible and positive impact on the running of our businesses, be it in an ownership, marketing, sales, office management, accounting, PR or HR capacity. 

But as our sector continues to redefine itself, continues to replace brawn with technology, and continues to try to keep pace with not only innovation but the dizzying rate with which change occurs, it’s probably time for a lot of us to start re-defining what we’re looking for in an engineer, a machinist, an industrial trouble-shooter, or a new product designer. 

It’s time, in other words, for us to get women infinitely more involved in not just the managing of our businesses, but the making of our products. 

It’s time that we tapped into the imagination, creativity and passion women have always brought to bear, whatever they’re tasked with.  It’s time we started valuing a woman’s ideas over a man’s brute strength.  And it’s time that we open our arms – and our factories and shop floors – to the half of this country’s population that has somehow always found a way to make things better for the rest of us.

There is a smattering of examples that certain enlightened individuals are already trying to make this happen.  Heck, in my city of alone we have a great little concept called Gadget Camp, a summer program which exists solely to introduce young women to the joys and rewards of a life in manufacturing. 

But we need so much more.  We need the people at the top of the manufacturing food chain to realize that we are never going to maximize our full potential as a sector until we give women, to borrow my friend’s expression, their very own seat at the table.

Seventy years ago this past week, America put a woman named Rosie to work helping us win one war.  My sense is we should get past ourselves and our history, and see what we can do about putting her to work helping us win another.


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