Bringing together women in the UK packaging industry

Women in Packaging – Where are we now?

Women in Packaging – Where are we now?

Women have played a vital role in the packaging industry for a long time, but as is the case with many STEM disciplines, the roles have tended to be the less visible ones with proportionally fewer women in high-profile roles.

In June, we celebrate International Women in Engineering Day, which means it’s the perfect time to discuss how the industry has grown to offer women more opportunities, but also how much further there is to go.

There have been a number of contributing factors to why women have historically held fewer key roles within the industry, as well as making up a smaller proportion of the workforce. One prevalent reason is stereotyping. Packaging, like other engineering and technology branches, has been male-dominated for a long time. Industries where high-profile positions are predominantly held by men often tend to be self-perpetuating in that regard. This quality often renders industries slow to change or adapt and closing the gender gap is no exception.

Stanford University conducted studies on the effect of negative stereotypes in academic performance and concluded that the standard measures are biased against women in quantitative fields. The research highlighted that this was due to ‘stereotype threat’, rather than potential or innate ability. This indicates that women have their real-world performance undermined and underestimated due to the psychological effects of stereotyping.

As an industry, it’s been wonderful to see great strides being made over recent years, with high profile females taking the spotlight. To understand the current state of play and where the future lies for women in the packaging industry, it’s vital to understand the context.

Throughout the history of packaging, women that have made a high-profile mark on the industry have often done so unsupported – and have been the exception, not the rule.

One example of this is Margaret E Knight. A serial inventor, Margaret created a shuttle & spool safety device while visiting a US cotton mill at just 12 years old, that would later be adopted into cotton mills across the country. At a young age and knowing nothing of patents, Margaret did not profit from her creation.

Margaret later invented the first machine to automate the production of flat-bottomed folded paper bags whilst working at the Columbia Paper Bag Company. The wooden invention revolutionised how the packaging was produced, cutting production times to a fraction of the hand-made method that had been used to that point, but not without difficulty. As Margaret developed additional metal-based prototypes, she found that her patent application had been rejected as a patent for an almost identical machine had just been granted to a male machinist – a man Margaret had earlier allowed to examine her new invention. Margaret sued the machinist and won, but the case indicates a pattern in print and packaging that would take many years to break – and a mindset that all too often still exists in the industry. This isn’t just a story from the history books, the erasure of female accomplishment in packaging still happens to this day.

STEM disciplines have suffered from lack of diversity for a long time, particularly in the UK where females make up just 11% of engineers, which is the lowest rate in Europe. Training and development positions have the same problem – less than 8% of engineering and manufacturing apprentices in the UK are female, and for construction and the built environment that figure is estimated to be as low as 2%.

Packaging Digest reported that in 1976, women made up less than 5% of the global packaging industry workforce. Compare that with today’s conservative estimate of 30-35% and there has clearly been growth. The issue however, is that it’s been slow growth with much further to go. When women make up half of the global population, one must ask why this ratio is not yet represented at all levels of the packaging supply chain.

Education is key to achieving a greater balance. Not only to ensure the consistent flow of talented individuals into the industry, but to put print and packaging firmly on the map for young women as an exciting career choice with real opportunities for development. STEM disciplines have often struggled to entice younger females with the same effectiveness that it attracts males, which harms the industry as a whole. With women making up half of the global populace, development that doesn’t involve female ideas, opinions and viewpoints finds limited innovation.

So, where does the future lie? The keys to advancing the role of women in the industry is visibility and support. By highlighting the achievement of females in the field, they act as role models to the younger women starting careers and ultimately encourages more individuals into the industry, chipping away at the gender split divide. A consistent influx of talented individuals to the industry benefits everyone, and by highlighting successes, the industry minimises a barrier to entry for young females.

Raising the profile of women generates more role models and is a current goal of the wider engineering and production industry. The Women’s Engineering Society has launched a campaign for 2019 that aims to identify more female role models in the industry in a bid to encourage more women into STEM careers.

It is vital that the gender balance be addressed at all levels of the industry, but progress takes time. To keep the development continuing, initiatives such as Women in Packaging UK (WIP UK) exist to shine a light on the accomplishments of women in print and packaging, and providing support, development and networking opportunities.

Women In Packaging UKWIP UK, as an organisation, supports the tenements of growth for women in the industry, offering a chance to meet like-minded women who face similar challenges and learn best practice from each other. Believing in the importance of strong support networks, WIP UK also co-ordinates a comprehensive mentoring scheme for newcomers to the industry, ensuring they have role models of their own.

As a free-to-join initiative, WIP UK welcomes women from every stage of the print and packaging supply chain and celebrates success, diversity and achievement. To find out more about joining Women In Packaging, visit our membership page or contact womeninpackaging@gmail.com.