“There isn’t enough of them,” answered Alison Keane, president and CEO of the Flexible Packaging Association.

The question we posed: “What do you think about women in packaging?”

True enough judging by the legion of khaki pants and dark button down shirts at the ginormous PACK EXPO International show in Chicago (except for the FANUC team — they wore the coolest highlighter yellow sport coats!).

So how are women shaping the manufacturing workforce? Is the gender gap poised to shift? And why is a contract packager in the healthy food and snack space even writing about this topic?

Inclusion in the workplace begins by including all of us in the conversation. At GreenSeed, having a diverse culture fuels our growth as individuals. Women outnumber men almost 2-to-1 on the plant floor. Nearly all our quality assurance technicians and almost 30 percent of our machine operators are women (plus one forklift driver).

Women are an important part of our story.

Mountaineers will tell you that perspective comes from where your feet are planted. In like form, we have explored the topic of women in packaging through different viewpoints.

A View From History

First, let’s talk about an important anniversary. Thirty years ago this month, H.R. 5050, also known as the Women’s Business Ownership Act, was signed into law by then-President Ronald Reagan. Before that, a woman business owner looking for a loan also had to line up the nearest next-of-kin male as a cosigner.

Were they afraid we weren’t serious?

Here we are three decades later. By the numbers, women make up nearly half the workforce yet, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, comprise only 29 percent of the manufacturing workforce.

Statistics take us only so far. We talked to Mayra Cervantes, quality systems coordinator at GreenSeed. Not only does she oversee first shift, her crew happens to be all women too.

A View From the Plant Floor

Mayra has spent eight years in manufacturing with the last four at GreenSeed. She originally studied computer science before starting a family. She’s super organized, a valuable skill she teaches others. People enjoy working for her and respond by striving to do their best.

We asked her about the impact of women leaders. The question took her by surprise. Even though she leads a team of four women, she didn’t see herself strictly as a female role model.

“Being honest, I never see myself as a woman leader making an impact, but rather as a person, as a human being trying my best,” said Mayra. After a pause, she added, “But now that you made me think about it . . . women are very passionate. When we see the value in something we set a goal toward it and make it happen.”

At GreenSeed, our playground is the natural and healthy food space. It’s what we do, know and love. So we asked her how women are making an impact in our market. Her answer smacks with universality.

“Thinking as a working mom, and observing my coworkers and some of our customers who are also mothers, I confirm the fact that we want the best for our families and ourselves so we are always looking for food and snacks that are not only healthy and delicious but also practical and convenient,” she said. “That moves companies to be creative and try to cover that need. Here at GreenSeed, we are helping those companies reach that goal.”

A View From the Packaging Industry

While at PACK EXPO, we caught up with Tracy Stout, vice president, marketing and communications for PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. What’s the view about women in packaging from the industry’s biggest trade and media organization?

“When you look at how underrepresented we are, it’s a huge gap,” said Tracy. “We formed the Packaging & Processing Women’s Leadership Network two years ago to retain and advance women’s careers in packaging and processing. The best thing is for women is to see other women in the industry. It’s not just mentorship, but to literally see. When you see manufacturing, you see men. When you walk around PACK EXPO, you see men.”

Except on Tuesday earlier that week when there were 600 women gathered in one room.

The Packaging & Processing Women’s Leadership Network breakfast at PACK EXPO featured a panel discussion, including Carol O’Neill, group president of Barry-Wehmiller, a $2.8 billion supplier of engineering consulting and manufacturing technology for the packaging, corrugating, sheeting and paper-converting industries.

From the press release announcing the breakfast: “These industry leaders will weigh-in on the company culture change required to grow women’s presence in this male-dominated field, and how the industry as a whole can assist in building a more diversified workforce.”

Well said.

Stout then points to the most talked about outcome of the breakfast. It isn’t what you think.

“They (women in packaging) are there. They exist. But you have to put them out in the forefront for the young women to see them. The breakfast had this incredible discussion, but what most women talked about was the energy in the room. We were all there and talking about something important.”

She says that, while there are workforce challenges across the board, the one thing to remember is that, as a woman, “You just have to put your hand out. If you are working your way up the ladder, bring someone with you.”

A View From Chicago’s Manufacturing Sector

Like Tracy, Kathy Gilmore doesn’t mince words. She sees a “definite shift” — with the population of women in manufacturing growing. A serial volunteer, mother of three and University of Missouri alum, Kathy is president of the Valley Industrial Association.

GreenSeed lives in America’s heartland, about 30 miles west of Chicago and the VIA is a valuable, local resource for area manufacturers.

“What I am seeing is companies being open, like never before, to exploring every angle to find the best talent. I don’t think companies were averse to having women in the past, I just don’t think women were attracted to the opportunities because it wasn’t marketed to them,” Kathy says. “With the workforce shortage, companies are looking deeper at all the ways they can solve the labor problem. To me, it’s all about the marketing. When you dive into candidate personas for job applicants, you look at who in your company you want to model. Many great women are rising to the top.”

Inclusion — feeling like your ideas and contributions matter — goes hand in hand with creating real opportunities for women in manufacturing. “It’s a shift for manufacturers because it has been such a male-dominated field,” said Kathy, “but things are changing to make it a more inclusive environment. Companies are looking closely at culture, employee engagement and retention.”

A View From Operations

“Manufacturing can’t run without women. They are a big part of the workforce,” said Samantha Lamanna, office manager for GreenSeed.

She says it’s true that men have long been running the plants, but says many companies in the natural food space were started by women. “These women wanted to take care of their families so they made baby food or the types of things they themselves wanted to eat. I think it stems from women caring for their families.”

GreenSeed recently hired its first female sales manager. Molly Meloy’s perspective is shaped by her experience with CPG customers and emerging brands.

“With more people starting their own companies, and many run by women, it’s becoming a more inclusive industry,” she says. “A decade ago, there were a lot of men at the food shows. Walking the floor now, there are more women in buying positions, not just demonstrating products. They are the sales manager, the CEO, or the creator behind the company.”

Your View

We hope you’ve gained some feet-on-the-street perspective about women in packaging. It’s a discussion with bottom line implications too. Many studies credit diversity — whether it be gender, ethnic, ideas, upbringing, education, whatever the differences — as impacting innovation, revenue growth, profitability, and retention.

With so many benefits, why does diversity and inclusion for women in packaging seem so elusive at times?

Something Mayra shared at the very end of our conversation hints at the answer. We asked: How have you impacted the lives of other women?

She didn’t even hesitate, saying, “My goal is to give the best of myself in everything I do and take advantage of any opportunity to learn something new — even when it is hard and I don’t really want to. That has helped me get to where I want to be. I try to share that with my teammates in hopes that they also want to do their best. All the ladies at GreenSeed are strong, intelligent and hardworking.”

As more women leaders like Mayra show the value of being ardent learners and empathetic leaders, we believe “herstory” will eventually meld into history and become one growth story for all.

What is your viewpoint about women in packaging?