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More Women Are Advancing to Ownership and Executive Ranks in Engineering Fields

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Lillian and Dorothy Bartkowicz are female owner-operators of a Newington, CT manufacturing company in a state that built its economy and reputation around technical innovation and production.

Lillian is the chief executive officer, and Dorothy is vice president of sales for Richards Machine Tool Co. The sisters point to twin role models – their father and mother – as the source of their success. Richard and Sophie Bartkowicz immigrated from Poland to the U.S. in 1970. They settled in New Britain, where Richard found work as a machine operator. Sophie worked nights at toolmaker Stanley Works.

In 1978, the parents, while holding down full-time jobs at other manufacturers, launched Richards Machine, renting space in the city and acquiring CNC machines to do fine milling work for early customers including former U.S. Surgical in North Haven, now Covidien. Richard Bartkowicz exposed both daughters to manufacturing early.

“He put us on the machines when we were a little older,” said Dorothy Bartkowicz Weber.

When Richard Bartkowicz died of a heart attack in 2002 at age 50, Lillian Bartkowicz, then a student at Central Connecticut State University, accelerated plans to join the family business. Dorothy, then an occupational therapist in Hamden, came aboard in 2003.

Bartkowicz Weber, whose husband Stephen Weber also works for Richards, recalls the sisters’ sobering early days running the company they say profitably generates about $3 million in yearly sales.

“When I went on the road to make sales, I wasn’t taken seriously,” she said. “I think people were a little skeptical of us running the business.”

But they won over skeptics, she said, with high-quality products, customer service and delivery. In recent years, Richards has invested more than $1 million, including with manufacturers’ assistance from the state, in new equipment and its purchase of an 18,000-square-foot Newington building, to relocate from Berlin.
Bartkowicz Weber says she also witnessed over time improvements in attitudes toward women in manufacturing.

“From 15 years ago to today, I see changes,” Bartkowicz Weber said.

A Surge in Women in Leadership positions

While female owners and executives are still vastly underrepresented in the engineering and manufacturing fields, signs are emerging that U.S. employers and educators are making inroads enabling more females to crack the gender barrier in manufacturing and engineering. Bloomfield’s Kaman Corporation recently announced the promotion of two women as assistant vice presidents in its internal audit and securities-compliance operations. And a third, Darlene Smith, will soon become vice president and general manager of Kaman’s air vehicles and maintenance, repair, overhaul division. She’ll be the first female division head within its aerospace segment, the company says.

In addition, Farmington conglomerate United Technologies Corporation pledged last June that women will hold half its approximately 1,000 corporate leadership positions around the world by 2030. Four months earlier, General Electric, now Boston based but still with a sizable Connecticut presence, said it wants 20,000 women to fill STEM roles by 2020, with gender parity in all its technical entry-level programs.

Untapped potential

According to a 2015 study by accounting-consulting giant Deloitte, the U.S. manufacturing sector faces a labor shortfall estimated at 2 million workers and “women are manufacturing’s largest pool of untapped talent.” While women represent 47 percent of the total U.S. labor force, they make up only 27 percent of the manufacturing workforce, the Deloitte study said.

“With women representing less than a third of the manufacturing workforce,” Deloitte said in the study, “it’s clear manufacturers are missing out on a critical talent pool, which could aid remarkably in closing the skills gap.”

But signs are emerging that more females see themselves designing and making machine parts and systems.
UConn’s School of Engineering has increased its female enrollment. From 2010 to 2015, UConn’s female engineering graduates rose 9.3 percent — highest among U.S. public universities in the period, the school said, according to a Washington Post survey that cited federal data. Nearly one in four of UConn’s engineering graduates in 2015 were women.

“We try really hard to recruit undergraduate female engineering students,” said Mei Wei, UConn engineering instructor and associate dean for research and graduate education who assists in the school’s recruiting of female engineering pupils and instructors.

Kevin McLaughlin is involved in similar efforts, directing the engineering school’s Diversity & Outreach Center. McLaughlin lists nearly a half dozen school- and industry-sponsored networking and mentorship programs with women who work in engineering and manufacturing in which UConn is heavily involved to widen its promotional pipeline to potential female engineers.

“If they don’t see role models,” he said, “not too many of them are going to continue. They have to see someone who looks like them.”

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