For those of us who have been born and raised in the United States, we sometimes disregard, or take for granted, the many opportunities this nation has to offer.

I, personally, was reminded of them after a conversation I had with Prathima Kapa, president of E-Fab, Inc. in Santa Clara, CA.

Prathima was born into a middle-class family in South India. Her father was an ambitious man with a hard childhood and her mother had an elementary level of education. It was important to Prathima’s parents that all their children received a higher education.

“My mom was our greatest inspiration and role model,” explains Prathima. “She made sure we had our own identities and encouraged healthy competition among us.”

Breaking from Cultural Traditions

By the time Prathima turned 16-years old, she was due to get married and start a family — a cultural tradition that is still practiced today in India.

She explained how her mother convinced her father to allow her the same opportunities as her brothers in terms of education and pursuing her dreams. So, instead of walking down the aisle at 16, she attended and, later, graduated from the Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University in Hyderabad, India.

“Chemical engineering is not a common choice for girl students. We are perceived as delicate creatures within our society, and the overall impression is that we cannot compete with boys or succeed in the harsh work environments pertaining to this field,” says Prathima. “Out of 40 students in my class, only ten were girl students. I am the only girl student left working in my related field. All my other friends shifted to different career options.”

After receiving her B.A. in chemical engineering, Prathima realized that opportunities for growth in India for female engineers were slim to none. “There were not many opportunities for women in the chemical engineering field at that time. We were destined to do desk jobs or stay dedicated to the labs. Most of the challenging and in-the-field jobs preferred male candidates. I always wanted to work in industrial or a manufacturing-type setting, so I started looking for other options,” explains Prathima.

Prathima’s brother was able to help her financially and convinced her to go to the United States.

Pursuing the American Dream

At 21, Prathima left India to pursue her dream in America. “It was a BIG culture shock for me, but I stuck to it with the amazing support of my friends,” she says.

Her research focused on Molecular Sciences and Nanotechnology at the Institute of MicroManufacturing in Ruston, LA. After two years, she received her master’s and then went on to pursue an internship at Kemac Technology, Inc. in Azusa, CA. Kemac provides photo-etched thin metal components used in medical, electronics, aerospace, and wireless telecommunication devices.  “This is where I met my amazing boss who helped me to realize my full potential at work and encouraged me to take up new challenges. His support and encouragement stuck with me for the rest of my life”.

After Kemac, Prathima accepted an Associate Scientist position at Acree Technologies, Inc., a physical vapor deposition (PVD) coating specialist located in Concord, CA.

She then became a Process Engineer at Elcon Precision, LLC in San Jose, CA. She was quickly promoted to Production Manager, which laid the pathway to her current position of president at E-FAB, Inc. in Santa Clara, CA. “At Elcon, I was able to bring out my best version,” says Prathima. “I started loving more of the manufacturing challenges, and I was able to bring out my creative side to solve those problems. Wal Disney’s quote: ‘Dare to dream and try to achieve’ is my favorite.”

Overcoming Adversity in the Land of Opportunity

Prathima’s story of success did not come without its challenges.

Despite the U.S. being considered the “land of opportunity,” women still face adversity in manufacturing regarding career opportunities, compensation, and growth.

A study done by the Manufacturing Institute, APICS (global leader in supply chain certification), and Deloitte reported that half of its female survey respondents listed the following reasons of why they considered leaving the manufacturing industry:

  • Poor working relationships
  • Work-life balance
  • Low income/pay
  • Lack of promotion opportunities
  • Lack of challenging or interesting assignments

Prathima attested to experiencing some of the reasons stated above in her personal journey working in manufacturing.

“Being a woman in a male-dominated industry caused me to work ten times harder than my male counterparts,” explains Prathima. “I had to prove myself on a daily basis to gain their respect and get to where I am today.”  

Prathima explained how 15 to 20% of the men she worked with supported her journey and provided guidance, but a portion of them tried to demoralize her and presented many obstacles. “Women tend to be more emotional than men,” says Prathima. “My advice: Put in 100% of yourself at work, but leave your emotions out of it, and don’t carry your work home with you.”

Standards of performance are believed to be greater for women than men at lower pay rates. PayScale reported that:

An uncontrolled gender pay gap, which takes the ratio of the median earnings of women to men without controlling for various compensable factors, has only decreased by $0.07 since 2015. In 2020, women make only $0.81 for every dollar a man makes.”

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that women earn about 82 percent of what men do; even less during child-bearing years (U.S. Labor of Statistics, 2014). Other research reports gender wage gaps in several manufacturing related roles including first-line supervisors of production and operating workers (70 percent wage gap), production, planning and expediting clerks (72 percent wage gap), and production workers/all others (73 percent wage gap) (Sherman 2014).

Manufacturers across the nation host facility tours that provide students with an intimate view of the latest technologies and available positions they may not have heard of. Such tours help erase the negative stigmas that depict manufacturing as dirty, dark, dull, and dangerous. They also help connect female students to women leadership in their communities.

Manufacturing communities are partnering with their educational institutions to provide academic and career pathways specific to women in an attempt to close the manufacturing skills and gender gaps.

Finally, women leaders in manufacturing, such as Prathima, are being more proactive in recruiting efforts by connecting with their communities and speaking to the next generation of manufacturers. She discussed the importance of support groups withing the work culture so women could talk to each other and be each other’s mentors.

“My advice to any woman considering the manufacturing industry is to keep an open mind and don’t dwell on the negative,” says Prathima. “It’s a fast-paced industry where you can be you, push yourself to great success, and make a monumental impact in everyone’s lives.”

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