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Gender still a factor in the manufacturing world

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Mary Gordon, president, Centryco Inc.
Mary Gordon, president, Centryco Inc. - ()

Like many high schools in New Jersey and around the country, Morristown has a STEM program in an effort to lead more students into careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — areas in high demand in today's and tomorrow's workforce.

But even though the school recently expanded the program, which has stringent entrance requirements, from 24 incoming freshmen to 48, it took only one look at the Principles of Engineering course for program director Christopher Duvall to see there still was a big problem.

Only one student in the class was a girl.

It's a problem women in manufacturing in New Jersey face every day.

Casey Muench, president and owner of GEMCO and Package Kare in Middlesex, said there needs to be more mentorship opportunities for girls and women so they can see what manufacturing is really like.

Muench will get her chance on National Manufacturing Day on Oct. 3, when several New Jersey manufacturers will open their doors to schools and invite students to tour their facilities while learning about the opportunities manufacturing offers.

“From a younger age, we need to show women what engineering is about,” she said. “I'm very passionate about what I do, so I wouldn't mind mentoring someone to follow me around to see what I go through.”

What she goes through in a world dominated by men.

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According to a 2013 report published by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte Consulting, women make up about 50 percent of the labor force, but only 24 percent of the manufacturing industry.

Cyclical issues such as work-life balance and the highly controversial pay gap that permeates every industry is certainly present in manufacturing — but why is it that women also hold fewer leadership positions at manufacturing companies than in most other U.S. industries?

Is it that the manufacturing industry has long been viewed as a “boys-only” club?

Is it that women are less likely to support each other when there is so little room at the top?

Or is that manufacturing itself is just downright unappealing to women as a whole?

Most women in the manufacturing industry — and those organizations reaching out to search for more — would say it's a combination of gender bias and limited exposure that hinders the industry from recruiting more women.

And while the opportunities are readily there, so are some complicated challenges.

Just ask Alan Haveson, president of the New Jersey Tooling and Manufacturing Association in Rahway, and a prior owner of industrial distribution companies in Piscataway and Elizabeth.

“Is there a gender bias out there?” he asked. “Absolutely, just as there is a racial bias and lifestyle bias.”

Haveson works with the organization to provide education, training and scholarships to state residents in an effort to improve the talent pool, but he knows that's just a start.

“Unfortunately, I have no quick answer as to how to combat (gender bias), other than to hope, with more education and some maturity, the issue of bias will eventually disappear,” he said.

Audrey Storch, who has worked in manufacturing for more than 15 years with her Passaic-based custom doll business Huggs to Go, believes the nature of women may be partially to blame for the lack of female employees on the shop floor.

“There seem to be some women who don't take their own power, and then there are women that out of necessity during their journey to the top have built up such a wall around them that it's hard to reach out to them,” Storch said.

That's why Storch makes it a point to mentor fellow members of the New Jersey Association of Women Business Owners in Hightstown, which has been providing networking, partnerships, education and political advocacy for its members since 1978.

RELATED: GEMCO combines manufacturing, testing — elements its fourth-generation CEO learned from the ground up

Not only does NJAWBO provide leadership opportunities for its members, it's also working to make the manufacturing and retail industries look cool.

For instance, the organization held a conference in Newark this past winter to help women business owners learn about working with the Super Bowl Host Committee and NFL. More than 1,200 women attended to learn about certification, contracts, proposals and more.

As a result, four NJAWBO members made it to the Super Bowl XLVIII official vendor list.

Their success is not a surprise to those who have made it before them. They all feel gender bias has never been quite the issue it's made out to be.

Storch, for instance, encountered bias when she attended tradeshows, but has since used it to her advantage when acting as a hired consultant for others in the toy and gift industry.

“When I would explain our (pricing and marketing) methods to other exhibitors, many would say, 'I have sold it this way for decades and I know they won't do it your way,' ” Storch said.

“To their dismay we did sell it our way and quite successfully — many of the men later on who made those comments would try our marketing methods when they saw our success.”

Muench said she earned the respect of her colleagues simply by taking on the tasks at hand.

“These guys don't respect me for what position I'm in — they respect me for what support I can offer them,” she said. “If we're not making a deadline, it's going to come down on their shoulders. That's the mutual respect we've come to understand.”

And Mary Gordon, president of Centryco — which manufactures metal and fabric machine covers, bellows, screens and guards — believes that gender bias is certainly not as pronounced as it used to be.

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“Today, people expect you to perform well, intelligently, confidently, and it doesn't matter whether you're male or female,” she said. “You better be able to do what you're supposed to do.”

Still, all agree it's important to cultivate the next generation.

The good news? It may be coming, after all. At least that's what Duvall is seeing.

“After we discovered a gender gap — one female out of 24 students — in our only section of Principles of Engineering course this year, we advertised STEM courses to the students,” he said.

“Now we have three sections of Principles of Engineering next year, including an all-girls section.”

E-mail to: megf@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @megfry3

If you thought manufacturing was all loud machinery, oil spills and tool kits, think again.

Passaic-based Huggs to Go manufactures a variety of dolls featuring the ability to frame interchangeable photos of loved ones, record messages and showcase customized designs or logos.

Audrey Storch got the idea for her product after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995. Her sons Adam and Jesse, only 7 and 4 at the time, suffered separation anxiety during her treatments, so Storch hand-sewed a huggable doll with a plastic pocket to slide her photo in for them.

Storch turned her idea into a successful business in 1999, and continues to sell Huggee Miss You dolls worldwide.

Huggs to Go also helps nonprofits raise money, such as “Operation Give a Hug,” which has provided customized Huggee Miss You dolls for 560,000 military kids around the world since 2007, and donates a portion of the profits for each “Inspirational” doll purchased towards breast cancer research and programs.

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