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“We need to learn about bias — whether it’s conscious or unconscious and take deliberate steps to treat people the same” With Penny Bauder & Kathleen Niesen

As a society, we need to do better. We need to learn about bias — whether it’s conscious or unconscious. And we need to take deliberate steps to treat people the same, no matter what their gender, race, background or sexual orientation is. In the field of STEM, our work is backed up by data […]

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As a society, we need to do better. We need to learn about bias — whether it’s conscious or unconscious. And we need to take deliberate steps to treat people the same, no matter what their gender, race, background or sexual orientation is. In the field of STEM, our work is backed up by data and facts. Our work should speak for itself.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathleen Niesen, Director of Recycling & Sustainability for PepsiCo Beverages North America. In her current role, Kathleen oversees the full spectrum of PepsiCo sustainability initiatives in the US, from sustainable packaging innovation, to PepsiCo Recycling — a program focused on increasing recycling rates in the US. Ahead of her time, Kathleen studied environmental engineering at the University of Florida in the 70s when it was considered “hippie engineering” by some of her fellow students. Upon graduation, she worked with companies to implement environmentally conscious and sustainable business practices.


Thank you so much for doing this with us, Kathleen! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was a sophomore in high school, I volunteered to help clean up an abandoned city lot as a part of the first Earth Day. Next year is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and I would not have been inclined toward environmental engineering if wasn’t for moments like that where my curiosity for caring for the planet was sparked.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was in my early 20s, I worked at a pulp and paper mill. Paper mills run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week due to the nature of the business — so when they shut down for a scheduled equipment upgrade it’s a very big deal.

My job was to oversee the planned installation of an enormous three-way valve during a planned shutdown. Days before the installation, I learned in a meeting that the valve wasn’t going to make it in time. In fact, it hadn’t even made it to the U.S. yet. All eyes were on me in this meeting. What was I going to do to remedy the situation? The planned shut-down was going to happen, and the valve needed to be installed. It took just a few minutes to come up with a solution, yet it felt like a lifetime. We ended up installing two two-way valves as a makeshift solution until the new valve arrived.

I learned an incredibly important lesson during those very uncomfortable few silent minutes. No matter how good your plan is, there’s always the possibility that something can go wrong. Lesson learned: always have a back-up plan!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

PepsiCo is a leading force in the industry-wide push for improved recycling and sustainable packaging. One of our flagship programs, Recycle Rally, offers K-12 schools the recycling funding, resources and infrastructure needed to instill recycling habits in students. Next year is the 10th year of the Recycle Rally program, and I’m proud to say that together with our dedicated student and teacher participants, we’ve kept almost 500 million recyclable containers out of landfills — all while inspiring the next generation to care about their environment on a very personal level.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

It’s important that I acknowledge how far this field has come in the past 40 years. I started working in the technology arena in the late 1970s and at that time the percentage of women in the engineering disciplines was is in the low single digits nationally. As an example, the percentage of women in my graduating class was only 3%. The percentage of women graduating and working in STEM fields now is much higher and while I wouldn’t say I’m satisfied with where we are, I’m pleased with the progress that’s been made.

When I look at the various STEM fields today, women are still under represented. As a STEM community, we need to work harder to expose children at a young age to math, because other STEM fields rely heavily on math as a foundation. We need to make math more approachable and friendly. And, we need to challenge children — especially girls — when they say they don’t like math, or that they are “not good” at math. Girls tend to have less confidence in their math skills and higher levels of math anxiety, which is probably one of the reasons that girls steer away from STEM careers later in their schooling. If we can start reinforcing the benefits of math and giving girls the confidence they need to embrace it, we’ll see even more girls choosing technical education pathways, and women in the STEM fields.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Even though it’s nearly 2020, women still have to deal with stereotypes and gender bias. Based on recent research, women in STEM are more likely to have experienced discrimination in the workplace than those in non-STEM jobs. That’s a tough pill to swallow as not only a woman, but a woman in STEM.

As a society, we need to do better. We need to learn about bias — whether it’s conscious or unconscious. And we need to take deliberate steps to treat people the same, no matter what their gender, race, background or sexual orientation is. In the field of STEM, our work is backed up by data and facts. Our work should speak for itself.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Back in the 1960s when I was in 9th grade, some of the curriculum at school was gender based. Boys took science and girls took home economics. My mother wasn’t having it. It’s not because she was particularly advanced or taking a stand for educational equality. It was because she knew that she had already taught me how to cook, clean and sew. Therefore, I should learn something that I wasn’t as familiar with in order to have a well-rounded education.

My mother met with the principal of my school and requested that I be placed in the science class rather than home economics. The principal couldn’t make that decision in those days, so my mom had to make her case to the school board. Thanks to my mother, I eventually ended up in that 9th grade science class with a very small handful of other girls. Whether she realized it or not at the time, that exposure to science sparked my interest and was one of the first steps I took toward a career in STEM.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Water access and security is something that’s incredibly important to me — not just for humans, but for all the planet’s creatures. In fact, the work that PepsiCo does to protect our planet — in particular the company’s work on making a positive water impact — is one of the reasons I’m so proud to work here.

If I could trigger a movement, I’d love to see the global STEM community focus our efforts even more on water than we do now. How do we defend all species from rising sea levels, ocean pollution, and overdrawn freshwater resources? And, how do we ensure water security for the hundreds of millions of people around the world who lack access to safe drinking water?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Show up and bring your “A Game”, every day.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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