Mars Vice President of Innovation, Science and Technology, Nici Bush, reflects on how gender representation has changed during her 30 years in the industry.
“If you have less than 30% of any minority group in a room, naturally, you won’t hear their voice”, declares Nici Bush. “And I’ve had many experiences where I’ve been the only woman.”
She joined Mars, the global food, confectionery, pet care and veterinary health business, at the age of 22 and, just two years in, was a shift manager in charge of 60 men. As she moved up the ranks to operations manager and plant manager, the number of people under her charge grew to 1,000.
“Mars is very good at putting you into situations that challenge you, and I’ve always felt challenged to do better,” says Bush. “We tend to give people significant responsibility early in their career.”
However, this responsibility didn’t make her immune to impostor syndrome. “In my early career, I felt I had to be one person at work and one person at home,” Bush explains. “And that is very exhausting. You’re not being true to yourself or the business. Any business thrives when you can bring your whole self to work.”
Gender balance at Mars
Thirty years on, there is much more of a gender balance within Mars, now on the Forbes list of the best employers for women in the US in 2022. Bush is Vice President of Innovation, Science and Technology, and 60% of her leadership team are women, including the Chief Science Officer, Abigail Stevenson, PhD and Jennifer Welser, DVM, DACVO, Chief Medical Officer for Mars Veterinary Health. Women also comprise 85% of Mars Veterinary Health associates and 73% of Mars Petcare associates.
Globally, 55% of the company’s leadership teams are gender balanced, and there are clear targets to expand to 100% at all levels of the organisation. Specific programmes have been created to tackle the parts of the business where women are underrepresented, such as supply, manufacturing, and digital technologies.
“The other thing is making sure that family support benefits are equal,” Bush highlights. “So, you don’t start the parenting journey with one partner taking a lot of time off that the other partner cannot take, which sets up an early pattern of who does most of the childcare in the household. You need to offer higher parental benefits, not only maternity benefits. We must continue to expand our leadership training for women so they can thrive – rather than just survive – in the workplace.”
Empathy, understanding team dynamics and being unafraid to ask questions were among the skills that women have brought to the table. “In the last few years, those are the skills we’ve needed more and more,” Bush argues.
“I’ve noticed that vulnerability is seen as a strength rather than a weakness. Saying things like, ‘I don’t have the answer, let’s work on this together’ is valued, and that’s a significant change from when I was 24. I think that helps because people can relax and not feel like they’ve got all the answers.
“The experiences I’ve had working with gender-balanced teams is that we get better answers to critical issues. For example, in conjunction with our global research collaborators, we had a team that worked on a natural blue food colour. It’s hard to find vibrant natural alternatives, but the team discovered a pigment in red cabbage – a significant breakthrough for the food industry.
“I’m very passionate about having gender-balanced teams because I believe it’s the right thing – not just for our business but for society – that the people looking at problems represent society.”
Generations not quarters
Creating a more female-friendly environment has been helped by Mars being a family-owned business that is diverse, purpose-led, and principles-based. It thinks in terms of “generations rather than quarters” and that “when you plant seeds today, you don’t get the benefit until tomorrow.”
When Mars acquired its veterinary health businesses – a predominantly female sector in general – it realised that that industry needed better rewards for women, such as maternity leave and childcare.
Bush reflects, “We committed to investing over $500 million for our vets and vet techs because we realised that, if we do, a rising tide lifts all ships, which means it will benefit the entire industry. Secondly, we needed to do that both for the talent that we have and the talent of the future.”
Recognising that there were still barriers to overcome for women pursuing STEM careers, Mars partnered with Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) in 2021. This global, non-profit organisation works with more than 300 member companies and partners to build a just and sustainable world.
Mars and BSR asked women in and outside the company what needed to change to enable women to achieve their full potential. Called ‘Here to be Heard’, it attracted 10,000 replies, and the core themes were a need for more gender-equal learning and mentoring for young girls.
As a result, Mars is running a programme with Harvard Business School called Women Leading Purposefully, which enables women to learn with other women. The company is committed to having diverse interview panels, measuring the gender balance throughout the organisation, and running unconscious bias training to help support inclusion. A review of pay practices showed that people are paid equitably, regardless of gender.
Mental health is also a priority. For several years, the company has provided a helpline for employees to discuss mental health issues, which has helped foster inclusion and maintain the gender balance.
Bush is a member of Chief, a private network to provide women senior executives from diverse backgrounds with resources, mentorship, leadership skills training and community as they climb their career ladders and pave the way for others to follow. The rationale is that, according to research, while women can build networks, they are not so good at leveraging them.
“Chief is aiming to remove the stigma of leveraging a network of women across many different industries and executive levels; to be able to say things like ‘I’d like to go for that role, can you put in a good word?’”
For women with ambitions to work in STEM, Bush advises them to look for companies that strive for equal representation. “If the workforce demographics don’t match the population demographics, women’s voices are not being heard,” Bush argues.
“STEM careers are social and interactive, not just about professionals in a room with a microscope. Love what you do – often, small things can have a massive ripple effect and give you a real sense of purpose. Finally, think about setting boundaries; the ability to say no, otherwise you will run out of energy before you run out of time.”