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16 April 2019
CM Industrial By CM Industrial

"Women should take challenging projects and be bold about what they bring to the table".

In the first of our #womeninindustrial series, I spoke with Iram Shah about what it’s like to be a prominent woman in a male dominated heavy industrial market. Previously an SVP with Schneider Electric she has held leadership positions with both BP and Coca Cola over the course of an extremely successful career.

Working in the automation sector for the last 4 years, I’ve kept track of Iram’s movements and when we decided to write a series of articles on this topic, I was thrilled when she agreed to speak.

Iram Shah

Traditionally hard labour in manufacturing and industrial jobs were not attractive to women. Today, with industry 4.0 and IoT, digitization, automation and robotics, the industrial sector is less labour-intensive and far more accessible to women.

However, the preconception that this the industrial space is still a ‘man’s world’ has left something of a hangover for many in the form of unconscious bias. In Iram’s words, the 30/70 split of women to men in the industrial workforce has become a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. Women aren’t entering these industries because they can’t see a reflection of themselves making progress, but that’s not because they can’t – women just aren’t putting themselves forward.

It’s just the lasting effect of an ingrained system full of unconscious, potentially even accidental, bias.

So, how do we change the system?

In Iram’s words, there needs to be an “entire value chain discussion”. Her solution would be to “make serious changes from the top to bottom and not just talk about the target of hiring women… I’d be setting targets of how many women move to middle and senior management and eventually to the board. That’s the ultimate test, right?”

To see real change, companies must change their hiring structures to ensure diversity is at the heart of everything they do. Decision makers must create channels for women to progress in their businesses. That’s a lot more work than just hiring an additional board member or setting headcount targets for women in entry level positions, but it’s what will create real, long term value.

Iram said “we should not be pushing just getting a woman in a position. We should be looking at two candidates saying, if they have the same qualification, then why are we not choosing a woman?”

Adopting this approach also helps with perceptions of the women who have managed to secure more senior positions. They’re met with difficulties, sometimes due to the misconceptions of their peers. “Women who do get to executive positions don’t want to be perceived as a token. As a prop. So, there’s a very sensitive balance”. A balance that can be addressed by taking a more gender-blind approach, to eliminate those biases I’ve already mentioned.

“You have to really not pay attention to your gender. You focus on the results and do what needs to be done”.

I finished by asking Iram if she had any advice to pass on to women looking to follow in her footsteps. The takeaways? Prioritize, execute and be brave.

“My advice is for women to not only understand the industry… but the culture and market dynamics that are impacting the company and their position. [Women should] take challenging projects and be bold about what you bring to the table. It’s okay to say you’re awesome.

We women never praise ourselves. Men are very confident, even if they only know 5% of how to do a task they’ll put themselves forward. With women, they have to know 99.99% to raise their hands. I’ve always raised mine when I know 60%”.

If the skills gap no longer exists, it’s the confidence gap that now needs addressing in heavy industrial markets.

Ultimately, diversity is key to modern progressive business and the heavy industrial sector need to make changes to keep pace with the rest of society. Some groups are doing that – Iram highlighted Catalyst, a group of 50+ CEO’s, many of whom are from the industrial space. Rockwell Automation received their main award in 2017 for driving a culture of inclusion and promoting a high percentage of women to senior positions.

So progress is being made, but women are still needed in more entry level STEM roles, and more women need to be empowered with the confidence to raise their hand for the challenging tasks. Only then will new pathways be opened for women throughout the whole of organisations.

If the World Economic Forum is to be believed, gender parity is still over 170 years away. That’s actually up from previous estimates which were 80, then 120 years. It’s the continued efforts of trailblazers like Iram who are working hard to speed up that quest and help heavy industrial markets work towards true parity, throughout their organizations. 

A huge thanks goes to Iram Shah for taking the time out to speak about this topic. Follow #womeninindustrial to see more conversations with leading women in the industrial sector from Charlton Morris.

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