Allison Lin was planning on a career on Wall Street but accidentally ended up in plastics. She loves the industry but believes there's a "good-old-boys-club mentality" that gets in the way of inclusivity.
Today, Lin is senior vice president of sustainability and market development at Westfall Technik Inc., a major injection molder and toolmaker based in Las Vegas. She joined Westfall after high-profile stints at big-name consumer-facing companies: Procter & Gamble Co., Starbucks Corp. and Coca-Cola Co.
"I ended up in the plastics industry completely on accident. I was convinced that I was going into investment banking or consulting. After a stint on Wall Street, I decided I hated it," Lin said.
"Luckily, Procter & Gamble recruited at my university, and I joined the company and eventually was offered the dream job of developing strategies for sustainable plastics across their packaging space. This was way before anyone was really talking about sustainability, but I loved it and have stayed in the industry since," she said.
In her job at Coke, Lin was a frequent speaker at plastics conferences. While she may be a familiar face in the industry, that doesn't mean she always feels welcome. Lin agreed to answer questions about diversity in plastics for Plastics News' Don Loepp.
Q: Do you feel welcome in the plastics and packaging sector?
Lin: My answer to this changes on where I am at the moment. Brand owners tend to have a lot more diversity in their workforce, but at the higher levels it still tends to be very male-dominated.
A previous co-worker once started a statement with "before we had to deal with women in the workplace," and I had to politely correct him with "excuse me, you mean before you had the privilege of working with women."
At a conference, I once had a supplier state "you have a big job for a little girl."
At the manufacturing level, the demographic is extremely white, male-dominated. I'm often both the only female and minority in the room.
"Welcome" is a very ambiguous term. There's conscious and implicit bias going on constantly. There are many events planned around male-dominated activities. There's very much of a good-old-boys-club mentality in this industry, but I am seeing significantly more awareness and the want to do better. I am seeing my male colleagues reach out to understand and consciously try to be more inclusive.
I was thrilled to see the Plastics Industry Association have a diversity, equity and inclusion panel at their recent meeting, and I hope more conferences and forums in this industry follow suit.
Q: We traded some emails earlier about why the plastics industry is so quiet on social issues on social media, when other companies and so many of our customers are more vocal. Do you have an opinion about why that's the case?
Lin: I think this is a traditionally more conservative industry that very much views business as business, and it is more B2B, where our customers are more B2C and working with consumers on an everyday basis.
However, I think it is possible to do both — to show support to our diverse employees, communities and customers, including some tough conversations and uncomfortable topics without delving into the political side.
Q: One specific example would be the Stop Asian Hate movement. I've seen almost no one in the industry talking about that. How does that make you feel? Isn't it an issue worth amplifying?
Lin: Almost no one in the industry is talking about it because there are almost no Asians in the industry. It doesn't affect their daily lives.
I was on a recent panel for Executive Women on Amplifying Asian Women voices, and a poll found that 100 percent of the participants felt less safe in the past year and have taken extra precautions to protect themselves, as well as our elderly community. The non-Asians who heard this were shocked at the poll results. For many, it was a news blip that doesn't impact their daily lives.
We absolutely need to amplify it and make sure we're protecting those in our industry as well as our communities. Step up and be an ally. I had a co-worker volunteer to walk me to my car right after the [March 2021 mass shooting] incident in Atlanta happened, and that meant the world to me.
Q: Is there anyone in plastics/packaging who you think is more proactive on issues of social justice/gender equity who others should follow?
Lin: Jim Fitterling from Dow Inc. has become a recent hero of mine. He is a beacon of light in a conservative industry, and I am inspired about how open he is talking about his personal life was well as DEI issues for the industry.
Cathy Nestrick is another hero. She recently started a podcast called "Parity" focused on gender parity in the workplace. I encourage everyone to listen, especially on how to be an ally.
Q: Do you have any suggestions for how leaders in the industry can do better?
Lin: Listen and act. Whatever you do, don't ignore DEI issues. Our customers expect to see more diverse representation from their suppliers, and diverse organizations time and time again outperform nondiverse organizations. There are great resources now on how to be an ally, how to recruit a more diverse workforce, how to enact workplace policies that create a more open environment for inclusiveness, how to recognize conscious and implicit bias.
Catalyst has a whole series targeted to men who want to be better allies. DEI should not be an issue championed only by diverse employees; those in the majority and in leadership have a responsibility to their workforce to be better allies and create more inclusive working environments.
Q: What benefits do you see for companies that do a better job at attracting a diverse workforce?
Lin: McKinsey has a whole series of reports on how diverse organizations outperform nondiverse ones, so this impacts the bottom line and the economic success for our industry. And it is not just about attracting a more diverse workforce. Companies need to create an inclusive environment to retain candidates and then development them.
Q: We recently got a letter from a reader who said there was "no lack of diversity or such a thing as racism, ethnicity, sexism, genderism or pay inequity in my business or any business." In his opinion, it all comes down to ability. Does it surprise you that people feel that way, and how do you deal with someone with that attitude?
Lin: That sounds like a whole lot of privilege to me and someone who needs to take a deeper look in the mirror.
Starting from the womb, race and socioeconomic factors impact the physical and mental health of an individual. Scientists are finding that generational stress — i.e., from slavery and racism — actually gets encoded into our DNA, and again there is still today a whole host of explicit and implicit bias built into our legal system as well as our hiring practices.
Studies have shown that even with exactly the same resume, only changing the name on the resume to a white male-sounding name boosts the chances of an interview significantly.
Then there's similarity bias, where people tend to automatically like people who look and think like them more. We all have these biases, but it is important to be aware of them so that we can act to overcome them.