Bringing together women in the UK packaging industry

Diversity quotas– Disrupting the echo chamber or artificially inclusive?

Diversity quotas– Disrupting the echo chamber or artificially inclusive?

If you’ve seen the recent roundtable discussion ‘Women in Print: Weathering the Storm’ (watch it here), you’ll know that one of the items of debate was the ‘female quota’ within business, particularly the upper echelons of management. A diversity quota sees a set number of demographic minorities, including women, installed in certain senior positions. 

Across countless industries, steps are being taken to open up opportunities and roles to women in traditionally male-dominated sectors. Some industries are faring better than others and unfortunately print and packaging is one of the slower-moving sectors in this regard.  

Research agency McKinsey compiled a report on the gender gap at business executive level and highlighted a few notable, if perhaps not surprising, observations. The research shows that more than two thirds of CEOs change at least half of their senior teams within two years of taking up the role, which the report identified as an ‘unfreezing’ moment of transitionary change – but within this process the majority of CEOs do not take this opportunity to increase workplace diversity. 

This demonstrates tone-deaf hiring practices at best, and tacit avoidance of the problem at worst. Currently, female employees across packaging – as well as being fewer in numbers – are not privy to the same growth opportunities as their male counterparts. In another report, Harvard Business Review found that on average, women in business environments are given disproportionately high ‘non-promotional’ responsibilities, a term that the management magazine uses to describe tasks that don’t promote self-growth or contribute to the likelihood of a promotion opportunity.  

The state of play 

The supply chain has been male dominated for such a long time that it becomes something of an echo chamber. The same story is true of many other sectors, most commonly in manufacturing, technology and engineering. The reason is that we’re inspired by who we see around us, and visibility matters.  

Fewer women in positions of authority creates few visible role models to encourage other women into the sectorWe instinctively look to people that share common traits and values with us, and nobody likes to be the ‘odd one out’, which is just one of the reasons why diversity matters. When the bulk of retail purchases are made by women, the print and packaging sector does itself a disservice by not reflecting this in its workforce.  

This has been one of the driving forces behind Women In Packaging UK, an initiative designed to level the sector playing field and encourage more women into the industry, as well as showcasing opportunities for female professional development and growth. 

For many businesses, a diversity quota is a ‘quick-fix’ panacea solution to address and rebalance the historic gap between men and women in business. It obligates businesses to employ a certain number of minorities in particular roles, which can include gender identity, race and ethnicity, as well as certain other socio-economic demographics. The system is intended to increase the presence and visibility of those groups that are less represented, from the factory floor to the boardroom.  

In theory, a diversity quota may appear as an adept solution. The challenge of under –representation is felt throughout the full print and packaging supply chain, which has historically been a male-dominated space. Surely any scheme that increases the number of women in the packaging workforce can only be a positive. 

The problem of diversity by numbers 

Herein lies the problem; in introducing a diversity quota, the challenges that the industry needs to tackle head-on become a short-term business obligation rather than a productive, beneficial goal. Female employees bring different skills, viewpoints and experiences than male counterparts, which all too often is missing from business decisions and strategy.  

Women don’t just make up around half of the population, they represent the majority of purchase decision-makers. It’s logical that women having a voice in the print and packaging industry brings more effective business developments and supports bottom-line profitability. 

In a recent report, Bloomberg noted that if businesses count women as a significant portion of their target audience, management teams should reflect this. The same report discovered that on average, companies with gender-balanced teams record a higher return on investment. What these statistics highlight is that women play a key role in the revenue and growth of business, that is too often hampered by limited opportunities for growth.  

Moving past surface level inclusion 

A diversity quota doesn’t solve the underlying economic, social and developmental imbalances that have been in place for almost the entire history of business, and in large part have contributed to the business inequalities we see todayA quota is not authentic changeit’s surface-level and artificial.  

To truly tackle the challenges of the sector, we need to take a closer look at areas such as hiring practices, career progression opportunities and most importantly, culture. At Women In Packaging UK, we seek to empower women in the sector with support and development opportunities, highlight success stories that often go under the radar and open up new avenues of dialogue with businesses looking to harness the power of a more diverse workforce. The initiative welcomes women across the supply chain to connect with networking events, training, development and mentoring opportunities. In doing so, we also hope to make the industry more accessible and appealing to females making career decisions.  

The danger with hiring women – or any demographic minority – under a quota system is that it plays down their achievements, skills and qualifications. The natural reaction for many is that their genetics put them into the position they’re in, not their talent. This is harmful to the many thousands of qualified women who perhaps weren’t afforded the same opportunities as their male counterparts, but are highly capable, nonetheless. In turn, we see an increased likelihood of ‘imposter syndrome’, where accomplished female employees and highly capable leaders feel like they haven’t earned their position on merit.

Installing a set number of women into positions of authority instead of reviewing unconscious bias in business doesn’t solve the problems that cause the imbalances we see. Instead, the industry would be better served by fostering equal opportunities for growth and proactively embracing the benefits of a diverse workforce, rather than it being mandated for the purposes of statistics. Feeling like they’re in a position they haven’t earned can be damaging to confidence, which we should instead be aiming to instil in our leaders. 

Setting specific quotas for hiring diversity is not inherently bad. At the very least, it acknowledges that there’s a systemic problem – but artificially governed representation is not the same as genuine progress.