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Reflections on Leadership: Belonging, courage and reimagining an inclusive manufacturing sector

by | Jun, 2023

By Dr Lisa Kinnear, Academic Director, TWIMS

For the past 3 days I have had the privilege of spending time in conversation with a group of women leaders from the manufacturing sector in our Women as Manufacturing Leaders’ Programme at the Toyota Wessels Institute for Manufacturing Studies (TWIMS). Reflecting on our engagement, I am left with some thoughts on belonging, courage and reimagining our workplaces and our world.

During my time with this group, we laughed, cried, were outraged, inspired, disappointed, shocked and resolute. A rollercoaster of emotions as we grappled with the critical issue of gender transformation in a sector where it sometimes feels treacherous to expose these feelings – feelings that are a by-product, not of our femaleness, but of our humanness. For it is a basic human need to belong and in a sector that has a deeply entrenched legacy of male-domination, belonging is a daily struggle.

If we want our manufacturing organisations to truly transform not just through the female faces in company newsletters and corporate reports, but in their underlying value systems, we need to see women participating equally and meaningfully in shaping new forms of leadership. More than ever the qualities that are typically associated with women’s strengths are valued as leadership essentials – in theory anyway. This begs the question as to why women have not made greater inroads into these positions of power.

In my work with leaders, both women and men, from a wide range of diverse organisations, I have had the privilege of hearing their stories and sharing in their development journeys. Most recently I have witnessed the overwhelm experienced by men and women as we face a barrage of disruptions and crises on a day-to-day basis in our manufacturing organisations. I have also been inspired by the courageous acts of men and women who despite the odds have demonstrated remarkable resilience to overcome challenges together.

But for most women when it comes to summoning up the courage to say to our male counterparts or managers, you have excluded me from that important decision or you have made an inaccurate assumption about me because I am a woman, the fear is crippling. Likewise the courage it takes for men to face their vulnerability, to accept that they do not have everything under control and to turn to women to share power and responsibility remains elusive.

At a time when we need each other more than ever to solve uncommon problems to which there are no easy solutions, the structural and cultural barriers preventing women from participating fully in leadership roles do not make sense. Kavita Nandini Ramdas, academic at Princeton University, and activist with the Global Fund for Women, said it well, “We need much less domination and much more imagination to succeed in this twenty-first-century world”.

TWIMS teaches a range of courses focused on the strategic challenges facing the manufacturing sector, these include issues such as digitisation, sustainability, supply chain resilience and the need to make the sector more attractive to a younger generation of talent. How do we expect to address these challenges if we stick with the status quo?

Departing from the status quo takes risk, courage and imagination. It struck me again as I reflected on the course that women are not looking for belonging because they feel “left out” of the “club”. It is because as over 50% of the world’s population, as the mothers of children, we have a deeply vested interest in the future sustainability of our organisations and our communities. I encourage women in the sector to find the courage to disrupt the status quo in both small and significant ways and I invite men to work with women to bravely reimagine our workplaces and our world.

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