How one company is facing the challenges of COVID19 and gender diversification in Ontario Manufacturing

In March of this year, the Trillium Network published a report that focused on five Ontario manufacturers that have made progress on gender diversity. While many reports have been published over years describing how manufacturers need to employ more women, ours focused on those manufacturers who have actually made progress. We revisit this report in our conversation with Kim and Simmie Thiara on this episode of Making it in Ontario, the official podcast of the Trillium Network for Advanced Manufacturing.

In order to compete globally, Ontario manufacturers need to hire more women. However, as Simmie points out in the podcast, that won’t happen organically – at least not until there is a cultural shift in manufacturing.

What the companies in the report all had in common was they approached the problem with the intent to solve it. There were no happy accidents. But in order to manage something, you need to measure it. Therefore, setting parameters for success and measuring progress was critical. Part of that process was to identify barriers to their goals: why don’t more women want to work here?

In order to compete globally, Ontario manufacturers need to hire more women. However, as Simmie points out in the podcast, that won’t happen organically – at least not until there is a cultural shift in manufacturing. At the company level, the goal of hiring more women must be present throughout policies, values, and culture. Unfortunately, those can be difficult to change. But when company leaders actively promote this cultural shift, the chance of success increases.

As it stands now, most manufacturers have work to do if they want to engage more women. Over the course of the episode, Kim and daughter Simmie explained how they dealt with unwanted male interactions in their jobs because, unfortunately, this type of attention is still a reality for many women. Kim’s approach historically has been to simply pretend she didn’t hear the comment. This spared her contemporaries a lot of awkwardness and worked fairly well for her in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. She internalized. Simmie, however, is of a younger generation and her tolerance for this kind of behavior is not the same as her mother’s. She does not internalize. Her approach is to make the offending male just as uncomfortable as her. She might be onto something.

“There needs to be an education or an awareness (about manufacturing) created at a much younger age,” points out Simmie. “I don’t think we’re aware of how many jobs are available to us.”

In order to make progress, it may be that more offending men need to feel uncomfortable. The problem is that people (not just men) have a difficult time sympathising with other people’s situations if they can not relate to them. Most men will never understand the discomfort of navigating an awkward conversation with a colleague, and that’s part of the problem. If more offending men start to get called out, it might make more of them think twice about what comes out of their mouths and how those words may make others feel.

As Dr. Brendan Sweeney is fond of saying, “In order to compete globally, Ontario’s manufacturing sector needs to attract the best and brightest. 50% of the best and brightest are women.” If it wasn’t clear before, it should be now: women are critical to the future competitiveness of Ontario manufacturers. Those manufacturers that succeed in engaging women will be more competitive than those that don’t.

In addition to tearing down the barriers that hinder women in manufacturing, Simmie Thiara wants to make sure young people realize manufacturing can be an excellent career choice. She notes that many parents insist their children go to university in hopes that they will become doctors, lawyers, or teachers. There is too seldom a conversation around the dinner table about the rewards of a career in manufacturing. That needs to change.

“There needs to be an education or an awareness (about manufacturing) created at a much younger age,” points out Simmie. “I don’t think we’re aware of how many jobs are available to us.” If she succeeds her mother in the chief executive officer role, Simmie Thiara will make AceTronic a three-generation family business. That is rare in Ontario manufacturing. Even more rare is a woman taking over from her mother (also a woman) to head that company (we can’t think of another case – can you?).

To keep a family-owned company going beyond a single generation requires a passion for the business, Kim Thiara says. The history of manufacturing in Ontario is littered with companies that failed or were sold to larger, often foreign enterprises after the founding entrepreneur died or left the business. The 2017 sale of Burlington’s Etratech, a manufacturer of electronics with applications for electrified vehicles, to the Michigan-based Gentherm is a case in point. Gentherm closed this plant in March 2020 and consolidated the work previously done in Burlington into a plant in Celaya, Mexico. That’s one less jewel in Ontario’s crown as the result of a decision made in Michigan.

In order to move forward, Ontario’s advanced manufacturing ecosystem will need to address the challenges of COVID19 and gender diversification if it hopes to survive – the same challenges Acetronic and Kim and Simmie Thiara are facing daily. They’ve made progress and continue to do so. Have a listen to see how they’re moving forward.

Timestamp

0:00-4:24 – Intro
4:25-5:44 – Meeting the guests
5:45-10:55 – Business in the time of COVID19
10:56-11:42 – About Acetronic
11:43-19:14 – Gender Diversity in Ontario Manufacturing: Kim, Simmie’s, and Shannon’s take
19:15-21:10 – Barriers to women in Manufacturing – GET A DEGREE, NOT A DIPLOMA!!
21:11-28:30 – How Simmie got into Acetronic
28:31-30:25 – Kim on cultivating passion in her kids
30:26-39:59 – Acetronic’s past and future
40:00-51:25 – Shannon discusses HR policies in the plastics industry
51:26-54:42 – Women seeing other Women on the shop floor
54:43-1:00:19 – The normalization of sexual harassment in the workplace
1:00:20- 1:04:43 – The do’s and don’t of talking to women at work
1:04:44- 1:05:56 – What women are taught from a young age
1:05:57- 1:06:37 – More women in the workplace = women feeling comfortable and likely to stay
1:06:38-1:08:44 – Nick rants about toxic men
1:08:45- 1:09:36 – The need for more compassion in business
1:09:37-1:10:55 – Shannon discusses HR practices Acetronic uses
1:10:56- 1:13:39 – The CAMSC Award

Links
Brendan’s Tweet
Gender Diversity in Ontario Manufacturing – Trillium Report
Acetronic’s CAMSC Award