Honda of Canada Mfg. has nearly doubled the number of female employees in entry-level jobs — to 29 per cent from 15.5 per cent — over the past three years, thanks to a recruitment program aimed at women, according to a new study.
The Women@Honda initiative is featured in a report showcasing best practices by five Ontario manufacturing companies — including one automaker — that have been taking steps to narrow the gender gap.
Manufacturers risk losing skilled and talented employees to other industries unless they make addressing gender equity a priority, according to the report, released in mid-February by the Trillium Network for Advanced Manufacturing, an industry think tank based at Western University in London, Ont.
Brendan Sweeney, managing director of the Trillium Network, pointed to a 2019 survey conducted by the advocacy group Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters. It found that 85 per cent of manufacturers were struggling to fill vacancies.
Women represent nearly half of Ontario’s workforce but only 29 per cent of employees in manufacturing, a level that has held steady since the mid-1980s, Sweeney said.
“The problems are well-documented, whether it’s tokenism, isolation because you’re the only woman where there are 50 men, [or] outright sexism and harassment,” Sweeney said. “There are still pinup calendars on the walls in some of these places. The argument that we can’t find good people, but we’re actually not really hiring women, doesn’t hold up.”
The Trillium Network report features case studies from five Ontario manufacturers that are making progress in attracting a gender-diverse talent base, including Honda of Canada Manufacturing. The Alliston, Ont., plant was established in 1986, meaning that long-tenured employees are reaching retirement age. The need to fill a large number of vacancies without access to an urban talent pool provided an opportunity to “capitalize on that moment and really drive some change,” said Sarah Grimes, Honda’s group leader for recruitment and administration.
In response, a recruitment program called Women@Honda was created to give groups of women a chance to tour the manufacturing floor for themselves and have their questions answered.
Under COVID-19 restrictions, these tours are taking place virtually.
Held twice monthly, the program gives women a “safe moment” to investigate the work environment before making a formal application, Grimes said.
When the program was initiated three years ago, women comprised 15.5 per cent of Honda’s entry-level workforce. Today, Grimes said, that figure is 29 per cent. And 98 per cent of the women who attend the Women@Honda program book an interview immediately after taking part.
Automotive News Canada has verified comparative workforce data supplied by Honda, which declined to make the statistics public.
The program, Grimes said, allows the women to see “how the environment is calm, not chaotic, and really clean. The feedback is consistently really surprised.”
The Trillium Network report makes recommendations regarding where to focus internal diversity efforts. A key challenge in manufacturing is work-life balance and flexibility given the pressures of production timelines.
The report’s case study of Muskoka Brewery in Bracebridge, Ont., discusses how the company introduced flexibility by allowing children into the workplace on days when access to child care is limited, such as on school professional activity days. Policies have also been established around the times during which employees are not expected to be available to their colleagues, which further promotes work-life balance.
“There are a lot of defeatist attitudes in manufacturing about flexibility,” Sweeney said. “There’s an idea that this is the workday, arrange your life around it. A lot of these companies are saying: ‘No, this is your life. Let’s arrange the workday around that.’ ”
Gathering and monitoring data is a key part of tracking progress and identifying opportunities for improvement. Just as Honda was able to quantify its progress, an organization needs to establish a benchmark and a goal before it can determine its best course of action, Sweeney said.
“In one of the [companies] we spoke with, we asked, what percentage of your skilled trades group today are women?” Sweeney said. “The answer was, ‘Well, “percentage” is such a strong word.’
“When an HR person at a reasonably sophisticated company tells me they don’t track the data, it either means they’re bad at HR or ... they just don’t want to show the data or they don’t want to learn.”
Women must also be integrated into the organization and involved in establishing policies and procedures to ensure that any changes truly are relevant to them, Sweeney said.
“All of [the companies with] policies, practices and programs to get women involved are led at least in part by women,” he said. “The likelihood that a couple of 60-year-old guys are going to come up with a really good strategy is much lower than if you engage women in this process.”
In addition to the case studies featuring Honda of Canada Manufacturing and Muskoka Brewery, the Trillium Network report highlights three other Ontario businesses, one each in pharmaceuticals, paper products and building and construction materials.
The five companies were selected for case studies based on having more female employees than the overall manufacturing average and than their industry averages, as well as how their overall proportion of women has changed over the last five years in senior management, STEM, production and skilled-trades roles.