DÜSSELDORF, GERMANY — Women working in the packaging industry not only affords more career opportunities for them, but it also lifts up the industry. At interpack 2023, Nerida Kelton, executive director, Australian Institute of Packaging, and vice president, sustainability and save food, World Packaging Organization, moderated a panel of women leaders in the packaging industry sharing their career experiences. Ms. Kelton and panelist Nadia Taylor, co-founder and director of TNA Solutions, shared their insights with Baking & Snack

Ms. Kelton and Ms. Taylor both have decades of experience working in the packaging industry and now hold leadership positions themselves, and they both pointed out that the industry benefits from diversity.  

“Whichever industry you look at, it should be the case that diversity is a core point of focus,” Ms. Taylor said. “Equal opportunities should be the norm, with those opportunities being purely merit-based, never gender-based. Having diversity creates a richer pool of outlooks and approaches, and often these diverse and varying points of view create solutions that perhaps would not have been uncovered otherwise. Everyone has something valuable to bring to the table.”

That diversity isn’t just limited to gender, either, as Ms. Kelton suggested. 

“We all bring different skill sets to the table,” she said. “You can’t have a slant on men any more than you can on women because we all bring different skillsets and see things so differently. An industrial designer will see things so differently than a food scientist than a chemist than a sustainability manager, so equity isn’t just gender-based. It’s bringing more people together who have different skillsets.”

Both Ms. Kelton and Ms. Taylor have seen the industry diversify throughout their careers. Ms. Kelton estimated that while the equipment side has been predominantly male and the food science side predominately female, she estimated those numbers are more 50/50 in her native Australia. However, developing nations still struggle to include women in male-dominated industries as women may not have the same educational or career opportunities. 

Ms. Kelton recalled one woman who immigrated from Iran to Australia because despite having three educational degrees, she could not find work in the packaging field in her home country. Today, she has not only been employed in the industry since day one of entering Australia, but she is also leading a team. 

“We have a lot of women in Australia, who have immigrated for better opportunities, and it’s important for me to hear those stories because it’s so different from the opportunities I’ve had,” Ms. Kelton said.

Even in developed nations, however, a lack of women leaders, transparent career paths and equal pay have kept women away from certain industries, such as engineering packaging equipment. 

“I think the biggest challenge and also the biggest opportunity lies in the manufacturing aspect of the industry,” Ms. Taylor said. “This area has historically been male dominated, and there are stereotypes that are hard to break away from that I believe deter a lot of women from applying for what are highly fulfilling positions. In general, the packaging industry has not been showcased or promoted as a good career opportunity, and from the perspective of encouraging more women to apply it is key to promote the fact that women leaders and role models exist and are continuing to break down those barriers.”

Ms. Kelton agreed, pointing out that you can’t be what you can’t see. 

“The Women in Packaging event is a great example as these panelists are CEOs and managing directors of big packaging companies and machinery companies, and that’s really important,” she said. “If we show women around the world that there are women in this industry doing good work, that they are leaders, then I think young people who are starting out will have the confidence to believe that there can be a long-term career for them in this industry.” 

At TNA, Ms. Taylor said, they’ve taken this to heart from the inception of the company that was founded in 1982. Ms. Taylor said they’ve always focused on creating a diverse workforce from many different angles. 

“We have women in key positions across the business, including engineering and sales, and we’ve also provided opportunities for our female workforce to grow while at the same time being sensitive to their specific needs,” she said. “We always take care to listen, interact and as a result we have developed options for them to work around that enables everyone to reach their full potential.” 

Ms. Taylor did point out that while TNA has made paths for women in the packaging industry, nothing replaces the merit of hard work and perseverance when it comes to an individual’s career trajectory.

“No matter who you are, nobody is going to hand opportunities to you on a plate,” she said. “It takes determination and focus to get ahead, but it is also important to allow yourself to make mistakes and not be weighed down by them. Your failures are integral as your accomplishments, as they build character and allow you the opportunity to learn.”

Ms. Kelton recommended women starting out in their careers surround themselves with strong mentors and a like-minded community that will support and guide them. 

“Those mentors don’t have to be women; most of mine were men,” she said. “But you have to have people you can talk to and be guided by who can give you advice and give you the confidence to lead. I gained my confidence because I had a tribe of people who saw me and said, ‘you can do this, you have the technical expertise even though you don’t have a degree in packaging technology.’ I was really lucky to have that network.” 

As a final thought, Ms. Kelton encouraged women to lift each other up and not compete against each other. 

“Don’t see other people as a threat,” she said. “There’s enough room in the industry for all of us to shine, and it’s important to recognize and honor people when they’re doing well.”