ConfiniCover storyfemminile


A cura di Marta Bello
21 Dic 2023

Good morning, Kristen, the first thing I would like to ask you is: how was your childhood growing up in New Mexico as the daughter of a scientist from Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the research for the "Manhattan Project" was done?

It is a good time to talk about this topic because much of the film “Oppenheimer”, which is about the Manhattan Project, was filmed on location in Los Alamos.  New Mexico is located at the border between the desert and the Rocky Mountains.  It is quite a beautiful and not well-known state, with very few people, and the town of Los Alamos was originally an isolated summer camp in the mountains accessible by only two roads.  Hence it was an ideal place for a Top-Secret laboratory for the development of the atomic bomb... The famous Manhattan Project.

The Manhattan Project finished shortly after the end of the Second World War, but the Los Alamos Laboratory has expanded and continues to do research today, both for the U.S. Government and for private industry.  My father has degrees in Engineering and Mathematics and worked for the Laboratory for his entire career, but he could never discuss his work with his family.  

Los Alamos is quite a unique city in which to grow up because most families have at least one family member working for the Laboratory.  It’s a city of researchers and scientists, and as such, it’s the city with the highest percentage of children going onto university in the US.

From a young age, I really loved math and chemistry, and my parents and teachers inspired me to chase my dream of being a scientist.  Girls and boys were equally encouraged to pursue their passions in science and technology… And I grew up believing that was true everywhere in the world.

New Mexico also has a rich native American Indian and Hispanic history and my mother was a high school French and Spanish language teacher.  So in addition to my love for science, I developed a keen interest in other cultures.

How was growing up in this environment? And how was the situation about gender and gender bias?  Did you find any difference in the treatment between you and your male peers?

In the Los Alamos school system, boys and girls were equally encouraged to study science, math or whatever they wanted.  The only bias in Los Alamos was about performing well in studies and devoting time to learning.  Growing up in that environment, I thought that it was the same outside Los Alamos as well.  But when I left Los Alamos to study Chemical Engineering at the University of California in San Diego (UCSD), I realized that the world doesn’t treat boys and girls equally and there is a lot of gender bias.

I know that you’re a Chemical Engineer. Would you like to tell me about any experiences you had with borders in the early part of your career?

Nearing the completion of my master’s degree at Pennsylvania State University, I began applying for jobs through the university’s career services program.  Companies would send representatives to interview a large number of applicants on campus.  The top few candidates would then be invited to visit the company for a tour and more extensive on-site interviews.

I still remember clearly one particular on-site interview which is a perfect example of gender bias.  I was being interviewed by a senior male leader at a major US consumer goods company and he gave me a quiz during the interview.  I thought that this was very unusual as the company had already seen my university grades. Later in the day, I was being given a tour of the facility by another male engineer who had been recently hired by the company.  When I mentioned the quiz, he was surprised, as he had never been quizzed during his on-site interviews.  I realized that the interviewer gave me a quiz because I am a woman.  Afterwards, I was offered a job with this company, but I declined and told them why.

I know you have crossed many geographic and cultural boundaries because you have traveled and worked all over the world. Would you like to tell me about your overseas experiences?

My first overseas experience occurred when I was seven years old.  My father had a teaching sabbatical at the University of Swansea in Wales, so we packed up everything and moved there for more than one year.  Even though I was quite young, I remember very clearly many of the differences in habits, cuisine, and especially language.  The reaction I received to announcing a nosebleed to my teacher using the American English term of “bloody nose” is difficult to forget!

Years later, living in Chicago, my fiancé and I began traveling more and more for both business and pleasure, reigniting my interest in exploring and experiencing other cultures.  Fortunately, Kraft Foods had many R&D and manufacturing centers around the world and my now husband and I were offered three-year assignments in Melbourne, Australia.  Given that both the U.S. and Australia are developed nations with a similar ancestry, language, cuisine, and business practices, we were entirely shocked by the enormous cultural differences between the two countries.  It was an eye-opening experience which really helped prepare us for future moves.

As our Melbourne assignment was nearing its end, Kraft Foods offered us positions at its R&D center in Munich, Germany.  Culturally, it was very exciting as our business partners and even our teams represented dozens of different nationalities.  One of the more fascinating aspects of this assignment was learning all the different ways in which diverse cultures within Europe solve problems and work together.

Then my husband and I were approached for an entirely different overseas experience.  The Coca-Cola Company was building a Global Innovation and Technology Center in Shanghai.  In addition to the opportunity to take on a role as General Manager of the new Center and expand Coca-Cola’s portfolio into new beverage categories, my husband and I were responsible for building the new offices, laboratories, and a pilot plant, as well as hiring and training nearly 100 new employees.  Our roles also required extensive travel, giving us the opportunity to learn about the diversity of cultures throughout Asia.

It was an amazing experience, but ultimately, we wanted to return to Europe and, at the same time, I discovered that Barilla was looking for someone with my background.  This is how we ended up here in Italy, where I started to work for Barilla’s Research Department in Parma in 2010.

Even after joining Barilla, my overseas experiences did not end.  Barilla asked us to relocate to Singapore for 18 months, where I led R&D in the Asia-Pacific.  Yes, we’ve traveled a lot!

What do you think about borders? What are they for you?  I think you’ve met and crossed a lot of them: cultural, geographical… What do you think?

I believe that when people think about borders, they think of human-made borders that we’ve built to keep people out or to keep people in, based on some kind of “difference”.  For me, borders are something that we have in our minds as barriers. For example, we often use phrases such as “cross the border” or “go over the border”.  It seems like a very big challenge!

When I do intercultural coaching, we do an exercise called the inner circle.  I ask everyone to write down the names of people with whom they spend most of their time: friends, close co-workers, people they trust, i.e., their inner circle.  Then I ask about the characteristics of these people.  Most of the time, their inner circles are composed of others of the same race, culture, age group, education, political views, etc.  Most of the time, our inner circle is made up of people who are very similar to us or remind us of ourselves.

Consciously or not, we create borders around ourselves and people who are similar to us and this can lead to a decision-making ‘blind spot’ called affinity bias.  For example, if I am leading a meeting and you, Marta remind me in some way of myself, I will be biased to what you say and listen more to you than Luca.  He is outside of my borders and therefore, unconsciously, is someone less trusted or valued.

Another example of affinity bias is in the hiring process where managers, consciously or unconsciously, favor candidates who remind them of themselves.

If we cannot cross the affinity bias border, our decision-making and problem-solving skills suffer.  We only consider input from people who already think, look or act like us, and we fail to consider other, more diverse, experiences and opinions.  This is exactly why study after study shows that diverse teams perform better as long as everyone’s opinion is respected.

This is a very big challenge because the reality is that everyone surrounds themselves with people who have very similar experiences and opinions. 

So how do we recognize and suspend our biases?  We must find ways to cross over our self-made borders and to learn more about the people on the other side.  We need to stop judging those who are different to us and instead listen more to them.  This may sound difficult, but there is always something that people on both sides of a border will have in common.  The key is to find that starting point and work to understand each other.

Let’s go back to your experience with Barilla. I know that at one point there was a big crisis and a boycott because one of the owners said in a public interview that Barilla would not show “non-traditional families” in advertisements. You and many on your team worked hard to make the company more diverse and inclusive. What was the process?

The crisis in Barilla was more than 10 years ago.  Since then, Barilla has really focused on using the situation to drive a real Diversity and Inclusion culture change within the company.  I was first asked to be on the D&I Board, composed of employees from around the world and external advisors, and led by the newly created Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer position, which reports directly to the CEO.  Each internal member of the board took on this responsibility in addition to their normal business role.  The goal was to bring in diversity of people, of backgrounds, of thought and create a more inclusive culture.  Diversity is important, but if you don’t have inclusion, it is a waste. I give Barilla a lot of credit for their commitment, and they are still doing it. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are not something that you can do in a year… It is a journey, is a very long process and you must keep working on it. 

Eventually I took over as Chief D&I Officer and had the role for almost five years, which was especially challenging when Covid affected everyone’s lives.  In that period, we worked to keep the aspect of inclusion online. We focused on mental health and wanted Barilla people to feel looked after in those hard times. Towards the end of my tenure as Chief D&I Officer, I submitted an application on behalf of Barilla for the Catalyst Award, which is the most prestigious global award for Diversity and inclusion. Barilla won this award in March 2021. Then I started to work in EWOB because I really wanted to give all my energy to increase gender equality in decision-making around Europe.

I think that it's an incredible project and best practice to share with others. Would you like to tell me more about EWOB and its history, and also what is your role in the organisation?

European Women on Boards (EWOB) was founded almost 10 years ago on 5 December 2013 after EU Member States rejected a Directive on increasing the gender balance among the directors of listed companies.  Many members states held the view that, “We don’t need a Directive; we will do this voluntarily”, but EWOB demonstrated that this approach did not work!

EWOB was formed as a non-profit umbrella organization over a group of local organizations advocating the approval of the Directive.  EWOB conducted the research and showed that the voluntary approach to improving gender balance in company Boards and C-Suites did not achieve any improvement.  

In addition to lobbying for the passage of the Directive, EWOB offers training programs for senior-level women including a C-Level program, a Cross-Border Mentoring program, and a Board Readiness Program.  In addition, we are creating a network of senior women and male allies, ready to take on board positions.

Last November the EU Directive on improving the gender balance among directors of listed companies was finally approved.  Ursula von der Leyen, the first woman to be elected president of the European Commission, said that this was one of her proudest accomplishes.  The Directive specifically requires that the underrepresented gender on the Boards of Directors of listed companies hold at least 40% of non-executive director positions, and at least 33% of all director positions.  So this is just a first step, not the finishing point. It is the first border that we’ve crossed! You only achieve what you measure, and you need to commit to goals and make progress.

My relationship with EWOB started in 2020 as a participant in the C-level program.  I was very impressed with the organization and subsequently volunteered to serve on the EWOB Board.  Last year, with EWOB growing quickly, the directors decided to create the position of CEO, a role to which I was elected in September 2022.

What do you think about the situation here in Italy regarding gender gap?  Have you seen changes in the last five years?

Italy was among the first countries which mandated gender balance among the directors of listed companies, well before the EU Directive was passed.  Today, women hold over 45% of the non-executive director board members for these companies, which is great progress.

However, in many countries the gender balance does not extend beyond the requirements of the Directive.  For example, women hold less than 20% of the Executive positions.  Companies may be hiring 50% women at the entry level, but few of these women are becoming senior managers.  There is often a bias which favors men in terms of training, development and promotions which creates a border that is difficult for women to overcome.  Another contributing factor is care-giving responsibilities, where Italy rates poorly in terms of equally dividing the workload.

The gender pay gap, i.e., a difference in salary between men and women doing the same job with the same experience and performance, is quite large in Italy.  As part of Barilla’s D&I journey, the company made a commitment to eliminate this form of discrimination.  The evaluation showed some cases where men were paid less for the same work, but in the majority of cases the analysis showed that women had been being paid less than men.  It was a huge effort by the company and Barilla achieved ‘Equal Pay for Equal Work’ in 2020. Unfortunately, not many other companies in Italy or worldwide have undertaken this important initiative.

But gender is only one of the diversity factors creating borders.  There is also race/ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, ability, culture, and many more, and these factors are exponential for multiple diversities.  For example, the borders faced by a women of color can be five times more difficult to overcome than for a Caucasian woman.

Overall, Italy, like most countries and companies, is on a D&I journey, which is not about perfection, but about progress.

What is it like living in Parma, how do you like it? What is it like to live as an non-Italian? I think that's another boundary you've crossed.

Moving here from Shanghai, with a population of 23 million people at that time, was a big cultural challenge, especially since we spoke no Italian at all.  We first focused on learning the basics of the Italian language, which was not so easy with our ‘older’ brains.  But I think this aspect is very important because it’s difficult to really understand the culture unless you can talk to people in their own language. 

We really love Italy and plan to stay here.  The country is full of history, natural beauty, art, passionate and friendly people, as well as great wine and food, which are unique to each region.  Of course, Parma is a small town compared to where we’ve lived in the past, but it is changing and becoming more international.  My husband now is volunteering to help refugees with their integration and employment.  If we can all be inclusive of new people, Parma will be even stronger in the future.

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