From scientists who are developing eco-friendly resins to designers creating an impactful point-of-purchase display to sell product, there are a variety of career opportunities for women in the third-largest industry in the world. The global packaging market value will increase from $917 billion in 2019 to $1.05 trillion by 2024,* making it the third-largest industry in the world. Packaging also covers all four of the main sectors of the economy primary (natural resources), secondary (manufacturing), tertiary (CPGs and retailers) and quaternary (information technology, research and development). From scientist to designer, there is a vast amount of career opportunities for women in the third-largest industry in the world.
What was your first job in packaging? What made you stay in the industry?
Amy Ericson: I have 35 years of packaging, chemical, and sustainability experience. After receiving a degree in chemical engineering as well as an MBA, sustainability has been a focus throughout my career. So, leading a packaging coatings business with deep roots in science and a strong focus on sustainability was a natural evolution for me. Today, at PPG, I’m responsible for packaging coatings and specialty materials that elevate our organization's commitment to consumer safety and sustainability. I love that it’s an incredibly dynamic space that has a direct impact on every single person’s daily life.
Bronwyn Gillon: Ten years ago, I joined NOVA Chemicals as a product development scientist, developing new polyethylene resins for packaging. To demonstrate that these new resins were useful or could be useful for our customers, we developed new ways of testing those materials in all polyethylene packaging, particularly for sealing and grease barriers. Because of these experiences, my role changed into an application development specialist where I was able to more closely work with customers to help develop recyclable packaging. Today, I’m also the product manager for BONFIRE multilayer film development platform that can be used to tune the film properties before physically making them. Engaging with customers, and working on exciting projects with great teams make it easy to stay here.
Heather Chandler: As Sealstrip is a family business, my first job was helping in the office in high school. I didn’t plan to have a career in packaging but after college, I began working in the office and quickly saw ways I could have an impact on the way the business operated and more importantly how we worked with our customers. I further developed my product knowledge and began working in sales, and loved it. I really love and believe in our products and the difference they make in the world so sharing that excitement with others in packaging really energizes me. While in sales I was able to pursue two graduate degrees as well. I also love being in manufacturing, creating jobs, and business strategy, so my role as president is a good fit.
Lisa Pruett: My first job in packaging was as a Human Resources manager at a folding carton manufacturer in Stone Mountain, Georgia. I felt so empowered seeing our work on store shelves and moved into sales where I could be more directly involved in helping brands. Taking a packaging idea from concept to reality is a complex process–especially when you’re working with big brands. The first time I saw through a loop that printing was just dots; it felt almost magical. In the sales role, I was able to work with many different brands and products; a cereal brand one day, a candy manufacturer the next. The variety drove a dynamic and expansive learning experience. At RRD, I’m working within an even larger breadth of services. We help clients navigate design, supply chain, and warehousing challenges. This only expands the scale and complexity of projects, which makes for an even more fascinating and rewarding world to work in.
Erica Canavesi: My first job in packaging was as packaging researcher trainee for a Packaging Technology Center, and I had the chance to develop a flexible packaging study for a big petrochemical company. Upon completion, my assignment was extended to give me more time to include more research data and get it published as a book with the title Preservation Requirements of Foods in Flexible Packaging. Since the beginning of my graduate studies in food engineering, I knew I wanted to work with packaging development. After my first job, I was then certain that it was my passion and that I wanted to stay and develop my career in this industry.
Michelle Sauder: My first role in packaging was as the marketing manager for DuPont’s food packaging business. I’ve continued to stay in the industry for 8+ years because I’ve always enjoyed roles where I’m marketing something that people can relate to. If you’re selling a chemical product, for instance, most people won’t know what it means or how it applies to their lives. I love packaging because it’s something almost everyone interacts with on a daily basis, whether it’s picking up an Amazon order or buying groceries. Working on something so essential to our everyday lives has been extremely rewarding over the course of my career.
Jo Anne Forman: Sealstrip’s owner was looking to hire a Business Manager. I was introduced as an entrepreneur who had recently sold my business. He intended to hire a man. After my interview I was offered a job as a Project Manager to prove myself, and I did. I’ve worked to build what became a Family Business and helped provide good employment opportunities for other women and men. My previous experience was creating and building businesses in the retail sector. Moving into B2B and working with packaging community professionals to create packages that worked well for the CPG and consumers was very rewarding, going onto build the company, inventing new products and help create a great place to work has been a very satisfying career.
Jennifer Raphael: My first job in packaging was with Orchard Custom Beauty where we sourced cosmetic packaging for clients/brands who we were developing full product ranges for. What has made me stay in this industry is my love of unique packaging and the thrill of hunting for innovative packaging that offers elements of surprise that inspire me.
Allison Lin: When I interned on Wall Street at Merrill Lynch, I quickly realized that it wasn’t the right career path for me. Luckily, Procter & Gamble was recruiting on campus, and I entered the world of packaging, which I knew nothing about at the time. At P&G, I was offered the opportunity to lead their global recycled and bio-based plastics sourcing strategy, and I fell in love with the field of packaging sustainability. I eventually went to Starbucks, where I got to experience the fiber side of the packaging business, and Coca-Cola, where I led development of the World Without Waste sourcing strategy for Closures, Labels, and Films. I recently spent the last two years on the converter side of the business to get a different perspective leading corporate sustainability at Westfall-Technik before coming back to the brand owner side at Mars. I love knowing that what I’m doing is positively impacting the environment and being able to see improvements that I worked on shelf or used by consumers.
Why are women important in packaging?
Amy Ericson: Women play an important role in economies around the world as they usually drive household purchasing decisions. And if women are choosing what to buy and how it’s packaged, it’s critical that their perspective is present at the outset of new product and packaging development. Women also tend to champion enhanced product qualities like safety and sustainability that help a brand's products stand out among the increasingly crowded shelf space. But really, women are an important part of a diverse team, just as it’s important to have people from different backgrounds or regions. Diverse teams work better.
Bronwyn Gillon: Women are important in all industries. Diversity in backgrounds, experience and thought process help with product and process development, and push innovation forward – faster. Diversity in thought enables teams to challenge one another and to avoid groupthink.
Heather Chandler: Specific to our industry, women make the majority of consumer purchasing decisions so it makes sense to involve women in packaging product development. From a broader perspective, women are important in packaging for the same reason it’s important to have diversity and inclusion everywhere. The best organizations embrace those with varied and differing experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives.
Jennifer Raphael: I sometimes picture scenes in the show Mad Men where men would sit in a room discussing what women want and how they want their self-care products to look and feel. As society has shifted, we have seen women able to create products -by them, for them - with a deeper understanding of what will make them feel good and confident. The way a product looks can make something as simple as buying a new bodywash more of a self-care experience if the look and feel of the packaging is done in a thoughtful way.
How can we get young women and girls interested and excited about a career in packaging?
Amy Ericson: It’s an exciting time to be in the packaging industry because of growing consumer demand and the continuing innovation for sustainable solutions. We’re seeing changes that would’ve taken years in the past be made in months. My message to everyone, but particularly young women who care about sustainability, is that there are many ways to positively affect the world we live in, but packaging innovations offer a unique opportunity. Most people are completely unaware of all of the coatings that make their packaging viable, so we can start by highlighting the critical role that science plays in driving circularity and sustainability. We need diverse minds to innovate, collaborate, and develop solutions that will enable a truly circular economy and solve some of today’s biggest challenges.
Heather Chandler: Exposing young people to more careers than what they see in everyday life at multiple times throughout their K-12 education is critical. Sealstrip regularly hosts tours for school-aged youth as well as speaking engagements at events that are career focused.
Erica Canavesi: Over the years we have seen more female representation in the packaging industry, and this wasn’t an accident. For example, universities created new graduation courses with packaging disciplines. Social media is connecting women working in the packaging industry, and this unofficial affiliate network helps keep women engaged and motivated. However, in order to further increase women participation in our industry, we need to start seeing more women with high-profile roles and leadership positions. We could also benefit from more networking groups specifically for women in packaging.
Michelle Sauder: It all starts with early education, so girls understand from a young age that there’s a place for them in STEM fields, including the different career pathways that are possible with a technical background. The conventional notion of being an engineer in a plant isn’t the only option. Packaging is a really great industry for using technical STEM expertise to make a difference. I went to Penn State for undergrad and continue to recruit from the university to fuel our talent pipeline of future innovators at Dow. During these recruitment events, students often express their passion to make an impact in the sustainability space. There’s really no better place than packaging to play a direct role in that; from increasing the shelf-life of food products to mitigate waste, or reducing carbon emissions by lightweighting products – there are so many opportunities to make a positive environmental impact by getting involved in the future of sustainable packaging.
Allison Lin: I’ve been fortunate to have worked at companies that had a diverse workforce, however; it's clear a lot more needs to be done across the industry to increase diversity and representation. Inclusive recruiting is only the first step. Creating an environment where diverse talent can thrive, with representation across all levels and functions of the company is important to retain talent. Companies should take steps to uncover unconscious bias and promote purposefully inclusive environments. Sustainability is also attracting young and diverse talent into the industry.
Why aren’t there more females in the packaging industry?Lisa Pruett:
There could be a few reasons. The first goes back to what I said about educating on the opportunities in packaging. We need to paint a clearer picture of what a career in packaging can look like or women won’t even see the potential for a career in this field. Second, even if you work in a positive, supportive environment, it takes a lot of courage to routinely be the only woman in the room - or even one of very few. That can be true for anyone who is a minority in the workplace. People want to see themselves represented in their company and when that representation often begins and ends with you, there can be some external or self-imposed pressure that causes self-consciousness or self-doubt. When that happens, you have to put in a little extra energy to push through those moments. Next, if you’re an operator or your role entails more hands-on shift work, balancing family demands can be difficult if you’re one of the many women who are also taking on the bulk of childcare. Every woman’s situation is uniquely theirs and I can’t speak for them all, but these reasons could be key factors.
Jo Anne Forman: Over the last 30+ years, I have noticed a remarkable increase in the number of women entering packaging, and rising through the corporate ranks at CPGs, especially when compared to women entering other engineering careers. The more women here in packaging, the more women will be inspired to consider it.
Jennifer Raphael: I think historically a lot of people in the packaging industry came from engineering backgrounds, which was heavily male dominated. That is changing and now we see more female engineers and more women who see packaging as an opportunity not to only measure but to create.
Allison Lin: It’s not a secret that the packaging industry is still heavily male dominant. Similarity bias drives recruiting practices to keep the status quo, and companies and individuals need to make a purposeful, conscious effort to break that cycle. I've seen a lot of diverse talent join the packaging industry, and then leave it because they did not feel welcomed and valued. It can be intimidating if no one you work with looks like you. We need to focus on educating and promoting the work we do to the next generation of female talent, and then ensure that we’re creating an environment where diverse backgrounds are welcomed and valued, so that talent can be retained and represented at all levels. Regardless of gender, I encourage people to start a career in this industry if the idea of how packaging can make a huge environmental impact on the world excites them. This is the very essence of why I’ve pursued a career in packaging.
What has been the most significant barrier in your career in packaging?
Amy Ericson: Honestly, and in jest, the only barrier I’ve found is that I’m not a golfer, so I’ve probably missed out on some camaraderie on the course. My passion is swimming, and I’ve found it hard to have a casual conversation while doing laps.
Bronwyn Gillon: Myself. Personally, I need to have a strong handle on what I'm working on, and I want to feel like an expert before I move on to the next thing. Likely, my career progression is probably slower than that of one someone who is more of a risk-taker.
Heather Chandler: Early in my career, as a young woman I was often left out of technical conversations or my customers would refuse to discuss a technical problem they were having. This made building strong customer relationships challenging. I think being a young woman is a double whammy. I rarely have this happen now that I’m older.
Lisa Pruett: Unspecific to my role in packaging, I’ve experienced the same hurdles most strong women have, namely being thought of as bossy, aggressive, loud, and just “too much”. Before my career in the private sector, I graduated from West Point and served in the Army, so I’ve been in male-dominated spaces a long time and have grown to be comfortable in different environments. I learned to leverage the ratios as an advantage, command attention BECAUSE I’m different. There is power in bringing a different perspective to the table.
Jo Anne Forman: When I was younger there were many men who seemed to believe that every woman is less knowledgeable than any man in the engineering fields. That is why I was only given an interview as a favor at my first packaging job. Back in that time, they felt it was OK to voice their discrimination. Now, it is obviously not OK to speak like this. We can change some minds, but not all. Age and experience have helped, it’s been a while since I’ve felt discrimination because I am a Woman in Packaging.
Allison Lin: Ironically my focus on Sustainability was an early barrier in my career. When I first started in Packaging, Sustainability was seen as a thing for hippies and millennials by the broader packaging community. My insistence on following my purpose, knowing that I could deliver both business value and environmental impact at the same time, resulted in declining opportunities for upward mobility that would have taken me towards a different career direction, and a lot of people telling me that I couldn’t have a real career in Sustainability. I held true to my own definition of success and am glad to see Sustainability rise to the level of importance that it always should have had.
How can women support other women?
Heather Chandler: Women can support other women first by being a good example. Show up. Be interested. Ask questions. It’s also important to be open to questions and feedback, be willing to share your knowledge, and share your experiences including mistakes and successes.
Lisa Pruett: The best thing we can do to support other women is nurture communities. The first thing I’d tell any woman entering the industry is “find your community” whether it’s inside or outside your workplace. The packaging world stands to benefit tremendously from the talents of capable, curious and passionate women. At RRD, we have a Women-in-Packaging group as well as similar groups for the label and retail businesses. We also mentor women sales representatives in the organization who are our up-and-coming leaders. At West Point, we had a belief that we stand on the shoulders of the classes of women who came before us. We would not be there if it wasn’t for them leading the way. I see this same thought process driving my role as a civilian leader in the packaging industry - to strengthen the foundation for the women who come after me.
Erica Canavesi: Create a sense of community. I highly recommend joining or creating specific social media groups where the members can share technical information and even find opportunities to meet during events to discuss important topics and exchange knowledge and experiences.
Michelle Sauder: We must work as teammates and not competitors. When I first started my career in engineering coming out of college, I was surprised by the times when I was viewed as a competitor, rather than a collaborator. But especially in such a male-dominated industry, we have to build each other up, not push each other down. In recent years, I do feel that we’re experiencing a mindset shift; I see so many more women supporting one another and serving as stronger advocates for each other’s professional and career development.
Jennifer Raphael: The vast majority of my team is female. Supporting them to have their voices heard is always a great place to start. We are so proud to foster a culture where we encourage everyone to give their opinions and take those opinions into consideration whenever we’re making decisions big or small.
Any advice on how to find a mentor?
Amy Ericson: Take the initiative and make it a priority to learn from the people in your orbit as often as possible. Get to know the people around you that you admire and reach out. I’ve found that often people are reluctant to just ask – they expect a process to come in and assign someone to “mentor” them. And while that can be a really enriching format, mentorship doesn’t need to be formal and intensive. It can be as simple as a monthly check-in with someone whose perspective you value. And I’ve also found that mentorship can even come from having an effective network of peers to volley ideas and discuss solutions. Receiving mentorship is about creating situations for yourself to engage in open, honest feedback and discussion.
Bronwyn Gillon: It can be as simple as asking person that you really respect to be your mentor. When identifying a mentor, think about how they operate, the way they think, the way they manage. Are these qualities you desire in your career and management style? Or you can identify someone who has a job you want in the future. While people are very busy, they generally want to help the next generation of leaders, especially if they know you respect their work and are interested in learning from them.
Heather Chandler: ASK! Most all experienced professionals I know would be very willing to mentor someone. Reach out to someone and be sure to frame expectations.
What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?
Amy Ericson: I was probably too career-driven early on. I set goals and worked doggedly towards them, which is exactly the type of passion-driven approach that I instill in my own girls today. But I would advise my 25-year-old self, and our similarly aged girls, that you can be successful and still do the things you love, like swim and play the piano. I find that I’m most effective at my job when I’ve given myself ample time to refill my creative battery. Being a well-rounded person is so critical in today’s world.
Bronwyn Gillon: I would tell 25-year-old Bronwyn to take more risks and trust herself. It's okay to not know everything in every area. Your contributions matter and enjoy the successes more!
Heather Chandler: Make the call, make the connection, reach out to other professionals- men and women- and build a network and a reputation of professional excellence.
Lisa Pruett: The exact advice I’d give myself at age 25 may not be the advice I’d give to other women at that stage of life. When I was 25, I was coming home from war and that experience had many added layers to work through. However, one nugget of wisdom I’ve gained from hindsight is to try and understand that at that age is the time in life to really put in the work on learning everything you can. I’m not saying we don’t work hard throughout the entire length of our careers. I’m underscoring that this is a golden time to join every conversation–even if it’s just to listen, even if you volunteer to take notes just to be in the room–because gaining as much knowledge as possible will help you discover what you love and find a place where you are both valuable and valued. Remember that you’re not just putting the work in for an employer, you’re putting the work in to shape your own path.
Erica Canavesi: Do exactly what you have in mind while always being a kind, curious, brave and determined person, and everything will work out fine.
Michelle Sauder: As you get older, gaining confidence with experience comes more naturally. One of the mottos that I live by today is, “Actually, I can.” But when I was 25, I wasn’t necessarily living these words or being quite as aggressive toward reaching my career goals as I am now. However, as I progressed through my career, I started to believe that whatever I wanted to achieve, I could – it was just a matter of setting goalposts for myself and making progress toward them. And if I got distracted or fell off course, it was just an opportunity for me to reassess if I was going in the right direction, or if I wanted to pivot to something different.
Jo Anne Forman: Embrace a career in packaging, be ambitious and work hard to attain results that help every stakeholder win.
Jennifer Raphael: I would tell myself not to worry about trying to change to fit a specific role within a company or a specific societal idea but to just completely be me, follow my gut instincts, continue to respect and appreciate people and approach business, my colleagues and my clients - even at the highest level - with respect and empathy. I think having the support of such an incredible leader myself for so many years showed me that you don’t have to change who you are to be effective and if you take care of people, they take care of the business.
Allison Lin: At any age, you have to define what success means to you and stay true to that. It’s easy to spend your career chasing someone else’s definition of success, but that’s not doing yourself justice or doing the world justice. Find the intersection of what you love, what you can get paid for, what you’re good at, and what the world needs.