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American manufacturers are facing a perfect storm of challenges. Not only is there a massive shortage of skilled workers — research shows that manufacturers are currently struggling to fill a whopping 600,000 open positions — but we’re also dealing with an aging (and soon-to-retire) workforce, with a directional median age of 54 and an average experience of 25 years.

These factors threaten to derail the industry’s growth and global competitiveness. However, a powerful yet often overlooked solution is hiding in plain sight: closing the gender gap and bringing more women into manufacturing careers — and especially quality smart manufacturing.

Consider this: Women represent nearly half of the U.S. labor force yet currently make up just 30% of the manufacturing workforce. This glaring disparity highlights the immense untapped potential in the 3.06 million women seeking employment who could help the industry meet its urgent hiring needs.

The Business Case for Gender Diversity

Beyond addressing talent shortages, increasing gender diversity in manufacturing makes good business sense. Research consistently shows that companies with more diverse workforces and leadership teams outperform their less diverse peers. They’re more innovative, profitable, and better at retaining top talent.

For an industry like manufacturing, where innovation is key to staying competitive, diversity isn’t just a nice-to-have — it’s a must-have. Women bring different perspectives and problem-solving approaches that can help manufacturers design better products, streamline processes, and foster greater quality control. Closing the gender gap is an economic imperative.

But despite the clear business case, progress has been slow. Outdated perceptions of manufacturing jobs persist — that they require heavy lifting and are greasy, dangerous, and only for men — and concepts like smart manufacturing and quality manufacturing are still not well known, deterring many capable women from pursuing careers in the field. And those who do enter the industry often encounter cultural and structural barriers to advancement.

To make meaningful change, we as manufacturers must look hard at our workplace cultures, HR policies, and talent development practices. We must be proactive and intentional about creating inclusive environments where women feel valued, supported, and empowered to succeed.

Demystifying Quality Manufacturing

Keishla Ortiz, Hexagon factory worker.
One of Hexagon’s female factory workers, Keishla Ortiz

According to Deloitte, female representation in quality engineering, metrology, and inspection is even lowerthan the industry average. This points to a dire need to take the mystery out of quality manufacturing roles.

Part of the problem is a lack of understanding of what these jobs actually entail. Quality roles lack the tangible end product of other manufacturing functions, making them seem abstract and technical.

To attract more women to quality careers, we need to pull back the curtain and showcase the dynamic, high-tech, and impactful nature of the work. Quality is really all about using data and advanced technologies to ensure products meet the highest standards. It’s about driving sustainability (which makes the world better and leads to less waste and higher quality) and delivering value to the customer.

Rebranding quality as a cutting-edge field with meaningful real-world applications can help combat outdated perceptions. We must highlight the women already leading the charge and the exciting opportunities available, from 3D metrology to data analytics.

Engaging Girls Early

Addressing misperceptions is important, but it’s only half the battle. To build a sustainable pipeline of female talent, the manufacturing industry must start engaging girls in STEM from a young age.

Women are significantly underrepresented in STEM degrees and careers, and the gap starts early. By middle school, many girls have already internalized negative stereotypes about their math and science abilities. They don’t see themselves reflected in STEM fields and start to lose interest.

Organizations like the Boys & Girls Club of Boston, where I serve as a board member, are working to change that. At the Boys & Girls Club, staffers create programs around “building the workforce of the future,” ensuring that girls have the same access and motivation to participate in science. We’re introducing girls to hands-on STEM projects, female role models, and the exciting career pathways available in manufacturing. Our goal is to ignite that spark of curiosity and show girls that they belong in these fields.

But we can’t do it alone. Manufacturers need to be proactive partners in these efforts. They can sponsor STEM-focused summer camps and after-school programs for girls, send female engineers and technicians to visit classrooms and discuss their work, and provide young women with internships, job shadows, and mentoring opportunities.

Investing in early exposure and support is critical to closing the gender gap in the long term. Girls who see themselves in manufacturing careers are more likely to pursue them.

Hexagon -  NCSIMUL1
Hexagon -  NCSIMUL2. NCSIMUL software, which is what the Machine Trainer system from Hexagon runs.
The NCSIMUL software, which is what the Machine Trainer system from Hexagon runs.

Accelerating Skills Development

As the manufacturing industry continues to grow, the skills needed for success in manufacturing are rapidly evolving. Advanced technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and big data analytics are transforming every aspect of the business.

This skills gap can feel like an insurmountable barrier for women who may not have had access to traditional STEM education or work experience, especially considering that many manufacturing jobs don’t require a college degree. But, innovative training solutions are emerging to help level the playing field and quickly upskill underrepresented groups for in-demand roles.

Immersive learning technologies like augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) hold particular promise. These tools — like machine trainers that connect the real and digital worlds — allow trainees to gain hands-on experience with complex systems in a safe, controlled environment. They offer integrated teaching, practical training, program verification, and safety simulation for CMMs and CNC machines efficiently and cost-effectively. Trainees can practice and fail without fear, building competence and confidence.

For example, we offer virtual training platforms that efficiently train operators on high-tech equipment like CMMs. Leveraging digital twins, these tools provide realistic simulations that mirror the real-world work environment.

And one platform goes even further, integrating data flows across the product lifecycle from design to production to metrology. This end-to-end connectivity allows real-time data analysis to inform continuous improvement. It’s a powerful example of how the Internet of Things (IoT) and big data reshape quality manufacturing.

Providing access to these types of cutting-edge tools and training can help women quickly build the skills needed for advanced manufacturing careers. And when combined with supportive on-the-job learning experiences like apprenticeships, they can be a game changer for inclusion and mobility.

Collaborating to Expand Opportunity

Making manufacturing attractive to female talent will take an industry-wide effort. Individual companies must look beyond their own walls to partner across the talent development ecosystem.

Economic mobility for women doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It requires intentional collaboration among employers, educational institutions, government agencies, nonprofits, and community organizations. Each plays a vital role in creating more equitable pathways to good manufacturing jobs.

As an economist at heart, I see investing in women’s workforce participation as a win-win. When women thrive, families, communities, and businesses thrive, too. Closing the gender gap in manufacturing is both an ethical imperative and an economic necessity.

Action Steps for Manufacturers

So, what can manufacturers do to turn these ideas into action? Here are some concrete steps to get started:

Partner with schools and youth programs. Support STEM efforts in your community and across the globe. Sponsor STEM camps, workshops, and competitions for girls. Develop hands-on curriculum and project kits. Launch a women-in-manufacturing speakers bureau.

Implement AR/VR training. Take advantage of cutting-edge technology to help make quality more accessible. Invest in immersive learning technologies for on-the-job training, especially in technical roles.

Join forces with industry partners. Amplify your impact by partnering with other like-minded organizations. Participate in organizations focused on diversifying the manufacturing talent pipeline. Share best practices, pool resources, and advocate for policies that support women’s economic empowerment.

Revamp your employer brand. Show women what’s possible at your company. Update your website, job postings, and marketing materials to showcase women in manufacturing. Highlight female leaders, share success stories, and emphasize your commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Measure and report progress. Ensure that your efforts are moving the needle. Track recruitment, retention, and advancement metrics by gender. Survey female employees about their experiences. Share your successes and learnings to help drive industry-wide change.

Driving Progress, Together

Closing the gender gap in manufacturing won’t happen overnight. It will take an intentional, collective effort to remove barriers, shift perceptions, and create truly inclusive workplaces where women can thrive.

But the potential rewards are great — for women, for our industry’s future competitiveness, and for the overall strength of our economy. By tapping into the full talent pool, we, as manufacturers, can innovate faster, grow smarter, and build more resilient businesses.