Women In Machining

Jessica DuLong profile photo

Jessica DuLong

Published February 1, 2006

As a girl, Francisca Mancia never imagined that someday she’d be stationed at a Mazak 200MSY, making parts in a Long Island machine shop. In Ecuador she’d studied psychology. Now, at 31, she stands peering through wire-rimmed glasses at her misbehaving machine. Her long red hair pulled back in a clip, Mancia conveys a self-assured seriousness that belies her less than a year of machining experience.

She pushes buttons, coaxing the CNC back into action. And when the machine begins to whir, the corners of her mouth curl into a small smile. Within six weeks on the job, she was proficient in inspection, loading material, and deburring. This caught the eye of her supervisors. Mancia likes her job: “When I begin,” she explains in halted English, “it was very strange. But I like the computer. I like to change the work. Now it’s easy.”

It’s easy because “Fran has a lot of natural aptitude,” says her boss, David Thuro, president of Thuro Metal Products. That’s why he invests time advancing her training – and why he decided to try to get her back when she quit. He was determined not to make the same mistake twice. He has learned – the hard way – how important skilled workers are to his business. And today, nearly half of the 52 employees in the company’s Brentwood, NY precision machine shop are women.

In this, Thuro Metal Products is an anomaly. Walk into any machine shop, nationwide, and chances are you’ll find mostly men on the factory floor. Women numbered just four percent of the country’s 445,000 machinists in 2004, according to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. This percentage was about the same a
decade ago.

The question is: with machining industry employers clamoring for skilled help, and women struggling to make ends meet in more ‘traditionally female’ jobs, why haven’t more women pursued machining?

To explore this question, we first need to understand how and why some female machinists have gotten into the trade, and what they’ve experienced along the way.

Pioneering Women in Yesteryear’s Machining

Meet Sue Doro. She started in machining 35 years ago after her husband walked out on her and their five school-age children.

In Milwaukee in the seventies, factory work seemed like the best way for her to break into the job market. So she enrolled in a paid job-training program at a local technical college. “The counselor kept pushing secretarial training,” recalls Doro, now 68. “I knew better. Skilled factory workers in Milwaukee had considerably larger paychecks than start-up clericals, and they didn’t have to spend any part of their checks on make-up, high heels, dresses, and pantyhose.”

Doro took to machining immediately. After graduation she got a job at Helwig Carbon Company, a small non-union factory where she was the first female machinist ever hired. She still has the polished railroad spike that a wheel-shop buddy presented after her first month on the job. In yellow paint he’d printed the words: “Sue. Machinist. 1972.”

She held that title for more than a decade, working next at Allis Chalmers Tractor Plant in West Allis, WI, and later for the Milwaukee Road Railroad, where she was the first female journeyperson IAM machinist in the company’s 100-plus-year history. There she made train bearings, set up and ran 15-foot-high wheel-bore machines, and operated axle lathes with cutting tools that “shaved slices of blue-hot metal like curls of butter” until the company was sold in 1985.

For more than 13 years, in nearly every factory she worked in, Doro was the only woman in the shop. She learned quickly how to adapt. She made do with no women’s locker room, wearing the same clothes to and from work, keeping her wallet and keys in a pants pocket instead of carrying a purse, putting up a sign on the men’s room door when she was using it, bringing her own toilet paper. Mostly, she got along well with the guys. One man, however, was a dangerous exception to the rule.

Doro was working at the tractor plant at the time, in a position she’d gotten only after filing an EEOC hiring discrimination complaint. She operated a Radial Drill Machine in a shop where in summertime the temperature would climb to 115 degrees, even on the midnight shift. Here she encountered the “worst pig I ever came into contact with.”

Things went badly with Dick from day one, says Doro. He “never thought that he’d have to run a machine next to a female,” she explains. She fielded constant verbal and physical harassment, and began each shift by removing pornographic pictures from the top of her toolbox.

One night, Doro says, Dick’s behavior turned from menacing to deadly. As Doro reached for the worn, green ‘ON’ button on the radial drill, something stopped her. She double-checked the chuck and realized it was loose. Had she hit the button, the 15-pound bit and 25-pound chuck would have separated and flown off the machine, directly at her face. When confronted by the union, Dick admitted he’d loosened the chuck collet, says Doro: “‘Damn. Didn’t mean anything by it,’ he said. ‘Just don’t think a girl should be doing the same job as a man.'”

Like all trades, machining has its own history of harassment to overcome if the industry intends to attract and retain more women. Women’s expectations about the working conditions they’ll face in a male-dominated shop cannot be discounted as a possible deterrent to pursuing employment.

Like the women before her

Unlike Doro, Betsy Walker says she never had to “bash down any doors” to get work as a machinist. “I followed the women who did whatever they had to do to get into jobs like that,” explains Walker, now 58. She got her first manufacturing job in Alameda, CA in the late seventies: “I took a lousy job in parts inspection just to get something on my resume that wasn’t clerical.”

Soon she went looking for a job in machining because she’d become fascinated with the machines. Figuring she’d need to start at the bottom, she searched for a position as a sweeper. But one shop surprised her; they had her take a test, then hired her on as an apprentice. Walker still wonders if a previously filed lawsuit might have gotten her that job. “Maybe they needed to hire a woman,” she says.

The supervisor in charge of Walker’s training “couldn’t have been nicer,” she recalls. The biggest challenge she faced was learning how to work with men: “I tried to be flexible, but not so flexible that I let people take advantage.”

She worked in the shop for a year, turning crane parts on a lathe, doing facing, boring, and tapping threads. When the work dried up, she was laid off, and a foreman recommended her to nearby Todd Shipyard. Walker says affirmative action played a role in her hiring there, too: “That was a time when some companies were looking for women.”

She continued her apprenticeship, making and repairing pumps, valves, and shafts for Navy ships, and learning to operate larger machines. At night school two or three times a week, Walker progressed through union-required workbooks. What the workbooks didn’t teach her, however, was self-confidence.

“I was easily intimidated,” she recalls. And eventually this led to difficulties with management. Her boss “didn’t get along with me,” she says. “He didn’t give me credit for my first year.” Walker ended up working five years for a four-year apprenticeship.

Though she knows she wasn’t treated fairly, she chalks it up to the newness of women in male-dominated fields. “If you’re not used to working with men or doing this kind of work, you run into problems. Partly it’s discrimination, partly it’s the system, but really it’s the learning curve. No one was used to women in these workplaces.”

By the mid-eighties, Navy work was becoming more and more scarce. When the union’s contract came up for renewal, wages got cut from $13.50 to $10 an hour, and the ensuing strike shut the shipyard down for good.

Months later, Walker finally found work in Vallejo, CA at Mare Island Shipyard. Here she ran a large planer, making parts for submarines. “I loved the big machines,” she says. “I liked working with my hands, and this job was both mental and physical work. I like the intelligence of it. These guys, some of them were damn smart.”

But soon, Walker was out on the curb again. Last hired: first laid-off. Mare Island Shipyard would turn out to be the last machining job she’d have. Eventually, the union helped her get work at a grocery warehouse as a maintenance technician. “Lots of machinists had to go into maintenance, or learn CNC machines, or just went into different fields altogether,” she explains. “One guy I know bought a bar.” At the warehouse, Walker learned to fix forklifts. “If you have a trade background you can pick work like that up pretty easily.”

Three years later she decided to try to find something closer to machining. Now she works at Anheuser-Busch in Vacaville, CA, repairing packaging equipment and filling valves and adapters. She’s still more of a mechanic than a machinist.

“I’m disappointed the trade isn’t what it was. It’s basically becoming extinct,” she laments. “I never ran into CNC machines on the job,” she says, by way of explaining why she wasn’t able to find other machining work. “It’s a slightly different skill set. The young fellas coming up now acquire those skills.”

CNC equipment may mean the end of machining for traditionalists like Walker, but some employers say the technology provides new opportunities for the next generation of women. Simply put: automation requires less strength. Today, more can be accomplished with the push of a button, and muscle mass is no longer a limiting factor.

“On our new CNC machines, where the tools you use are light, strength is not as much of a requirement. It’s more skill in setting the tool and checking the part,” Thuro explains. “Women are not only able to consistently load and unload our machines, they’re able to set up machines, specifically the CNCs.”

These units are cleaner, too. Less contact with oil, overall, could potentially open the door to more kinds of operators – particularly those who don’t like to get dirty. Many employers cite the less oily environment of CNC machines as another factor that can encourage women in this work.

But let’s pause here for a moment. It’s important to acknowledge the assumptions implicit in highlighting strength and cleanliness in a discussion of women in the workplace. Fact is, even raising these issues reflects a cultural belief about men and women, and the work for which they’re best suited.

“Women have always gotten dirty,” says Beth Youhn, executive director of Tradeswomen, Inc. “Think about changing diapers.” As a former crane operator, and the leader of an organization that helps unions and employers to increase recruitment, retention, and advancement of women in skilled trade careers in California, Youhn has ready answers for questions about women and work. “It’s all about perceptions,” she cautions. “Think of traditional ‘women’s work’. What kind of strength does a nurse need to lift a 200-pound patient?”

No doubt notions about what women can and can’t do have had an impact on how many women become machinists. What’s more, notions about what women can do actually play a particularly significant role in determining the place of women in the industry.

Stuck in Secondary or Climbing the Career Ladder?

The Labor Department says women make up four percent of all machinists. But that tally tells only a part of the story. The department defines machinists as those who operate and set up a variety of machine tools. But this definition, and thus the tally, leaves out many workers on the factory floor.

Since the bureau doesn’t provide a detailed breakdown of other machining jobs by gender, we must turn to anecdotal evidence. Most people in the industry will tell you that in the majority of machine shops, more women work in assembly and inspection than in toolmaking, programming, or set-ups. There are exceptions, of course, but the trend seems clear.

And the financial implications are clear as well. Other than supervisors, people in assembly and inspection positions generally earn a lower wage. This means that, by and large, women in machining make less money than men.

The question is why do so many women work in these lower-skilled, lower-wage positions? Are they inherently better at assembly and inspection tasks? Do employers simply fail to recognize women’s potential or ability to do set-ups, program, or troubleshoot? Do they resist training female employees for advancement? Or do women hold themselves back from aspiring to higher-skilled positions? As you might expect, there are no easy answers.

David Holscott, consultant to the Precision Machined Products Association, has trained machinists, men and women, for the past 28 years. Without hesitation, he asserts one oft-cited reason women stay in lower-skilled jobs: they’re better at them. “Women are better at repetitive work,” he says. “They’re far more patient. It’s part of their makeup.”

This statement, which would make some equal-opportunity advocates bristle, is the most common explanation given by employers for why they hire and keep women in assembly and quality control departments.

Though Thuro Metal Products boasts an employment roster of almost 50 percent women in its precision division, most of the company’s female employees work either in inspection, or in the Kummer department. That department, which consists of a row of small cam-driven machines, is all women-operated. “There’s a guy who sets up the machines, but every time I put a guy there [as an operator] it was a disaster,” says Thuro.

He explains it this way: “They’re smaller machines. You’ve got to get into a tighter spot. And it’s kind of, well, boring.” Thuro is more likely to assign female employees to this department because, in his experience, “women are better at doing repetitive tasks.”

This common perception is found among employers across the industry, and it no doubt informs hiring decisions in shops nationwide. “It’s very important that you have consistency in your work, an eye for quality, and eye for detail,” says Thuro. ‘Does one gender have more than the other? From what I’ve seen, women are at least on equal footing, and maybe have a leg up when it comes to attention to detail and doing the little things right.”

What puts, and keeps, women in lower-skilled positions, it seems, is that managers think they’re particularly good at them. “The natural progression is to start employees in secondary and move them up the ladder,” Holscott explains. “The reason women don’t move up the ladder is they’re very good at secondary. They’re very good at repetitive work. Men aren’t.”

This suggests, counterintuitively, that some men move up to higher-skilled, higher-wage positions precisely because they’re not good at the basics.

At best, employers’ perceptions about women’s special skills could encourage them to hire more women. At worst, such assumptions can blind managers to the full breadth of skills their female employees possess, and prevent them from advancing. Certainly, some women would rather stay in secondary than climb the career ladder. Some women, like some men, don’t have the aptitude for, or interest in, programming or set-ups. But for women who are interested in becoming skilled machinists, being pigeonholed into low-skilled work is a very real and daunting obstacle.

Ultimately, when any employee is held back from reaching his or her potential, the company loses out. About five years ago, Thuro learned a hard lesson about the value of female employees.

Hard Lesson: Equal Pay For Equal Work

When Thuro thinks about all the women who’ve worked for his company over the years, one face sticks out in his mind. “We had a woman here who was very good and we didn’t recognize it until it was too late,” he begins. The memory still pains him. “When we lost her, that hurt our company.”

Maria was the first female operator who was also skilled at set-ups. After working there for 10 years, she left the company. She quit, Thuro believes, because “she felt she was worth more.” Years later, he realizes she was right.

After she left, Maria’s department had a series of quality slip-ups that contributed to the loss of a quarter-million-dollar contract, Thuro explains. He recognizes now that she was underpaid. “We were paying her about $14 an hour, and we probably should have paid her a couple dollars an hour more.” In fact, though she was “every bit as good” as a male colleague in the same position, Thuro says that when she left, Maria was making $1.50 an hour less than he was.

Why the difference in pay? “I don’t know,” concedes Thuro, then tries to explain: “Throughout our whole society men have always been paid more. … You look at him,” he says, referring to Maria’s higher paid colleague, “he’s got a wife, two kids. … He was a go-getter. She was very- I wouldn’t say docile, but very respectful. Women are sometimes more reserved.” She had never come into his office to ask for a raise, and before he knew it she was gone.

Thuro certainly isn’t the only employer to face such issues. Gender-based pay discrepancies occur across all industries. Women’s difficulties with negotiating better pay are well documented, and the rationale that men are the primary breadwinners, supporting a wife and kids, is a common one. But in this case, like many others given the divorce rate, the rationale doesn’t bear out.

Upon further questioning, Thuro thinks back and realizes that, actually, Maria was every bit as much a primary breadwinner as her colleague. She was a single mother of three.

Losing a significant customer after Maria’s departure helped Thuro rethink the value of his skilled workers. That lesson had a big impact on what happened with Francisca Mancia. Though she’d started at Thuro Metal Products with no machining experience, Mancia impressed her supervisors early on with how quickly she could pick up new skills.

Initially trained in inspection, she later learned to load material into the machines, and to remove machining burrs. Within six weeks she’d been classified as a second-class operator. Then, three months into her employment, Mancia quit and took a cashier position at an auto parts store. Her sudden departure caught Thuro’s attention.

“We called her back,” he explains. “We said, ‘Fran, we think you have the potential to become a set-up person and make significantly more than you could ever make [in retail]. Stay with us.’ And she came back.”

Fran says she never wanted to leave. She liked the challenge of her machining job, but supporting her two sons had to come first. She had taken the cashier job simply because it paid $10 an hour instead of $7. Thuro’s offer,a $3 an hour raise and the prospect of advancement, was all the convincing she needed. “I made an investment,” he explains. “She may not have even been worth that at the time, but you look at the potential a person has.” So far, he’s more than pleased.

Now Mancia is learning to take down existing jobs and set up new ones – including downloading and uploading CNC programs, selecting proper tools, and installing chucks. “If we do our part, and she does hers, hopefully she will at least reach the level of first-class set-up,” says Thuro. “This would give her the opportunity to roughly double her present income in the next five years. That would be great for all.”

Training, the New-Fashioned Way

As it does for any worker, Mancia’s progress depends on training. Employer commitment to training is even more crucial to employee advancement now that more formal programs are scant. As Holscott puts it: “The apprentice program in this industry is virtually dead.” These days, he says, it’s up to employers to ensure their workers consistently learn new skills.

This puts women workers at a possible disadvantage, since they’re at the mercy of their employers’ ability to recognize and tap their full potential. A supervisor who keeps a female employee in secondary because she’s good at it might miss out on the good work she could do in higher value production area, if given the chance. And without the prospect of advancement on the horizon, some women might not be motivated to stay.

In the crunch of daily production pressures, pulling people out of their regular stations for training in new areas can feel like risky business. Cultural expectations might make choosing men for certain positions seem like more of a sure bet.

And employers aren’t the only ones susceptible to stereotyping; female employees have their own ideas about what work they can and want to do. Advancement through training requires a mutual employer-employee commitment. To achieve high-skilled, higher-wage status, women workers themselves have to be ready to challenge social norms.

Holscott’s years spent trying to recruit women into a precision machine technology course in Loraine County, OH showed him how difficult that can be. “We took out special ads, hosted seminars, and organized trips into factories so that women could see potential workplaces,” he explains. But more often than not, he found that the women weren’t interested. “When you think of skilled trades, 99 percent of people think of men,” he explains. The stereotypes are so ingrained it can be “very hard to get women into training for nontraditional occupations.”

Still, by most counts, the need to expand the job pool outweighs the challenges. After all, engaging women in skilled work isn’t just a matter of fairness. It’s a matter of employers hiring, retaining, and advancing the best workers they can. And right now the demand for skilled workers is bigger than the supply. Opening the doors to more women could help fill that gap.

As Beth Youhn reminds us, recruitment and advancement go hand in hand. “Occupational segregation is a problem in all trades,” she says. (“Next time you pass a construction site, notice who’s flagging the traffic,” she chides. “If there’s a woman on the crew, she’s going to be flagging.”) And in all trades it’s bad for business. “To have women segregated into the lowest paid positions isn’t good for an industry because it limits the pool of workers that you can draw from as your lead workers and your supervisors. You can always find more entry-level people.”

“If I were king of the world and could do just one thing, I would compel industry people to do more training,” says Holscott. “Giving people more training only benefits the employer.” With the loss of manufacturing jobs in this country, many workers with machining potential have shied away from the industry, he says. “Even blue-collar families try to steer their kids away from the trades.” This means it’s even more important for employers to tap the full potential of the workers they already have.

Thuro says he makes a conscious effort to rotate people into different positions as a way to encourage fresh ideas. He also tries to promote from within. “In this marketplace our skilled people are important, men and women,” he says. “Anyone who has skills, or the potential to have new skills, and who has the core desire to do this is valuable.”

Reaping the Benefits of Promotion From Within

For more than a decade, Mark Beesley, owner of MB Manufacturing in Rockaway, NJ, has found that on-the-job training and in-house promotions are the best ways to develop his key production people. His eight-person company specializes in designing and building tooling for the electronics industry. And because it’s not a typical production shop that sets up and runs parts, Beesley says he’s had “difficulty hiring experienced people because their experience won’t help them here.”

Unlike the so-called ‘experts in the industry” (some of whom “weren’t worth the application they filled out”) Beesley’s best hires have been people with no previous manufacturing experience. And the majority have been women. “I’ve had better experiences with the women I’ve hired than the men,” says Beesley. And it’s not because they’ve had patience with repetitive tasks. The trick, he says, is to find women interested in the field. “The women who come in and take an interest in what we do seem to work harder than the men do. They know it’s a male field and they want to prove they can do it.”

He learned to invest in his workers early on, to train them himself, pay fairly, and give bonuses for a job well done. These motivating factors have encouraged his workers to keep striving and rise to new challenges.

Beesely’s star employee was a woman named Pam, who had previously worked in a grocery store. He started her at $8 an hour, one dollar more than the store, and within three years she was making $20.

“She was the fastest and best I’ve ever seen,” says Beesley. “We have four CNCs and she literally had the ability to cut the material for one job while the machine was performing a set-up. Then she’d run out from cutting the material and go and change a part on another machine that was already set up.” He was amazed at her ability to process tremendous amounts of information very quickly. “She could keep all four machines running nonstop.”

What Beesley learned from Pam, and his other female hires over the last 15 years, is that “Whether you’re female or male, all it takes to be really good at anything is your desire.”

Ask Beesley about the differences between men and women, or if women possess special skills important to the machining industry. Every time he begins to draw a conclusion based on gender, he ends up back-peddling.

What success in this business comes down to is the desire to do well, and the determination to back it up, he says. “I don’t look at men and women. I look at people and the job they do.”