International Women’s Day: Packaging industry needs cultural shift as not enough women recruited
08 Mar 2023 --- The packaging industry struggles to recruit women into historically male-dominated positions and lacks representation across the packaging supply chain, yielding slow advancements, according to Joanna Stephenson, co-founder of Women in Packaging and Kathy Illingworth, head of sustainability consulting at Ecoveritas.
For International Women’s Day PackagingInsights investigates what it is like to be a woman in the packaging industry, gender-based discrimination and whether the gender gap has evolved over the last decades.
The packaging industry is widely considered the third-largest industry in the world, making it paramount to look at it through the lens of equality. The global packaging market value will increase to US$1.05 trillion by 2024, according to Smithers’ report, The Future of Global Packaging.
Stephenson and Illingworth speak on gender disparities between roles within the industry, however, the issues raised permeate most industries at large. They discuss which positions are typically filled by men and which are “for women,” as well as the performative activism seen in recent years of women being given higher positions for a company to use them as a photo op.
Women in STEM
Women make up 28% of the workforce in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW).
“Generally, the packaging industry is still male-dominated, like many STEM industries. Female employees are prevalent across traditional roles – sales, HR, administration – but sadly lacking in technical and leadership roles,” says Illingworth.
Research from the AAUW shows that negative stereotypes about girls’ abilities in math can measurably lower their test performance. Additionally, stereotypes can reduce girls’ aspirations for science and engineering careers over time.
When test administrators tell students that girls and boys are equally capable in math, the difference in performance essentially disappears, illustrating that changes in the learning environment can improve girls’ achievement in math, according to the report Why So Few. This encouragement, if enacted, could generate more women in STEM positions within the packaging industry.
Stephenson also notices gender disparities working in the packaging industry.
“It’s so disappointing to see the gender imbalance we have. Like many sectors, the packaging industry struggles to recruit females into traditionally male STEM roles and therefore, we lack representation across the packaging supply chain.”
“Women are usually found in HR, sales, customer service, marketing and design roles,” she says, echoing Illingworth’s observation.
Institutions, such as the international organization Women In STEM, are trying to combat this disparity, encouraging young girls in schools that they are capable of taking an interest and performing well in STEM subjects.
Illingworth recollects a personal experience where she encountered bias based on her gender. She says a company used her to appear gender inclusive. In Illingworth’s case, she benefits on paper, but generally, it does not help women, rather just bandaids appearances.
“Occasions, in my previous employment, where for grant tenders or board representation, I have been subject to positive discrimination as a woman, for quotas to be met or the appearance of equality at senior management level to be achieved,” she explains.
It is often mentioned how the tide is turning and more women are being committed to high positions or hired at increasing rates. However, this shift is only beneficial if it is genuine and women gain positions because of a cultural shift, not as a visual circus.
Illingworth describes her experience as “deeply frustrating” and hopes these instances will diminish as more successful women are promoted to senior roles within the packaging compliance sector.
“I am sure my experiences above are reflected in many industries,” she adds.
Men have seniority
Historical data exposes that before 1980, only 5% of the packaging industry roles were held by women. In 2020, that number was documented as approximately 30-40%. However, it is essential to look at the specific roles being filled by women as only 4% hold CEO positions.
Illingworth praises her experience working in the packaging industry alongside many knowledgeable men and women. She notes that the hiring rate between men and women in her sector appears equal.
“However, I would note that in terms of the more senior roles, these tend to remain dominated by men. I have noticed, however, that this doesn’t appear to be true for the charity and public sector organizations working in packaging compliance, where women appear equally likely to be successful working in these roles.”
In general, 5% of companies globally have a female CEO, 13% have a female CFO, and 7% have a female chair of the board. While women comprise 37% of the global workforce, only 18% of executives and 25% of senior management are female. These numbers continue to diminish regarding women of color.
“There is a lack of data concerning diversity, but one study indicates a 70/30 male/female ratio and, disappointingly, a gender pay gap between 11% and 28% depending on the role. This is not dissimilar to many other sectors and something we must focus on as an industry.”
According to a 2016 census in the US, women made up 29% of professionals working in the manufacturing industry – which includes packaging and the supply chain – when 46.6% of the workforce is female.
“When it comes to supply chain, manufacturing, technical roles and management, the numbers sadly fall away. This is due to many reasons – inability to attract young female talent into the industry in the first place, the challenges women have in keeping the balance between childcare and careers, and the lack of female role models leading the way,” asserts Stephenson.
Stephenson references a British Federation of Printing Industries study on gender diversity in the print industry, indicating very little progress between 2013 and 2019.
Illingworth calls on the same study, as there is little data surrounding gender discrepancies within the packaging industry.
“The main challenge is that things aren’t changing. Data is sparse to back this comment up, but 2019 data from the British Federation of Printing Industries – a core component of the sector – indicates that very little improvement was seen from 2013 to 2019, with 72% of the industry being male, 28% female, and a pay gap (depending on function) anywhere between 18 and 28% which is disappointing.”
The future is female
Stephenson does not think a lack of interest from women causes gender disparity. She sees the packaging industry as “vibrant, fast-paced, complex and dynamic.”
“I don’t believe today it’s about [packaging] being an unattractive industry for women to work in,” Stephenson says, calling the current packaging industry a “great place for women to work.”
“The main issue is that we’re not making much progress. Let’s hope the impact of the pandemic and more open thinking will see improvements in the twenty twenties,” she concludes.
By Sabine Waldeck
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