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Chemists Of Color

It takes more than good intentions to achieve diversity in the chemical workforce

by Bethany Halford
March 26, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 13

Credit: Mrloz/Dreamstime
Credit: Mrloz/Dreamstime

IF CHEMISTS BUILT a time machine and transported themselves to an American Chemical Society meeting 30 years in the future, what demographic changes would they see in their colleagues? If statistical trends of the past 30 years are any indication, the time travelers would see a higher percentage of women, Asian Americans, and foreign-born scientists milling around the exhibit hall and waiting in line at Starbucks, or whatever will be the Starbucks equivalent in 2037.

But demographic forecasts tell us the time travelers would not notice more black chemists and chemical engineers, particularly those with Ph.D.s, in the company of their 2037 colleagues. In 1977, black scientists earned 1.7% of the doctoral degrees in chemistry. For the past decade or so, chemistry doctorates conferred on blacks have hovered around 3.5%. Considering that African Americans account for roughly 13% of the overall population, according to U.S. census data, the gains seem painfully slow.

Those figures may be disheartening, but they tell only part of the story. "Too many people sit around and talk about how the numbers are too low," says Isiah M. Warner, a chemistry professor at Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge. "Those small numbers can make a big difference," he says. It's possible to buck the trend of low numbers and create an environment that more closely mirrors the overall diversity of the U.S., Warner explains.

To begin to transcend the small numbers, say the chemists who spoke with C&EN for this story, we have to recognize why diversity is important. That's not always easy for chemists. After all, molecules don't care about the skin color of the person who makes them.

"Musical notes don't care who composes them, but music sounds different all around the world, and all of it sounds pretty good when it's played right," counters James D. Burke. Burke spent more than 20 years as managing technical director recruiting for Rohm and Haas, a specialty materials company based in Philadelphia, before retiring in 2001.

The current thinking about affirmative action as little more than politically correct hiring has made it harder to convince some people of the importance of diversity. But Burke makes a point of differentiating between affirmative action and diversity. In the minds of some, he says, "affirmative action creates opportunities for certain employees at the expense of others."

Diversity, according to Burke, "is a deliberate business strategy to incorporate a spectrum of human resources and perspectives into the organization. Companies that utilize diversity effectively view it as an opportunity to improve their workforce, to stimulate innovation, and to market more effectively to a diverse customer base."

The more diversity you have within your company, the more able you are to serve a diverse customer base around the world, elaborates Peter E. Holmes, Rohm and Haas's director of new platforms business. "How does the voice of the customer or employee in China get connected back to the pathway of a corporation? Fundamentally, it's through people. It's through the attitude of openness and the sharing of ideas."

In the chemical workforce, industry seems to have had more success in attracting African American chemists than academia or government. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but the chemists who spoke with C&EN say a greater proportion of black chemists have chosen to work in industry, compared with their white counterparts.

Diverse Market
Credit: P&G
As a maker of consumer products in a diverse marketplace, Procter & Gamble has made diversity among its employees a core business value.
Credit: P&G
As a maker of consumer products in a diverse marketplace, Procter & Gamble has made diversity among its employees a core business value.

"When we speak of diversity today in industry, it is more from the perspective of ensuring representation from all ethnic and gender groups," notes Marquita M. Qualls, who works in a strategic planning group in R&D at GlaxoSmithKline and is a member of C&EN's advisory board.

"If we embrace that view on diversity, then the paradigm shifts from viewing me as an African American chemist to valuing me first and foremost as a skilled chemist with the perspective and experiences of an African American," Qualls explains. "The challenge in achieving that shift lies in educating individuals on this position on diversity, but even more challenging is removing the barriers of fear of asking questions about the differences."

For an illuminating discussion of those differences, Qualls points to an article by Harvard University business administration professor David A. Thomas: "The Truth about Mentoring Minorities: Race Matters" (Harv. Bus. Rev. 2001, 79, 98).

Thomas found that successful African Americans in the corporate world all had a strong network of mentors—most of whom were white. "Minorities tend to advance further when their white mentors understand and acknowledge race as a potential barrier. Then they can help their protégés deal effectively with some of those obstacles," Thomas writes. "In other words, relationships in which protégé and mentor openly discuss racial issues generally translate into greater opportunity for the protégé."

IN ONE INSTANCE Thomas outlines, a white male mentor advised his protégé without keeping racial issues in mind. He encouraged his protégé to adopt his more aggressive style. When the protégé did, it backfired. He was labeled as an "angry black man." Another superior-performing African American whom Thomas tracked had a very laid-back style. His detractors said he was slacking off, playing on the stereotype, Thomas noted, that blacks are lazy. Understanding the racial undertones, the mentor was ready to point out to those detractors that the protégé was the leading salesperson in the division.

Burke says Rohm and Haas began to see success in recruiting minorities when diversity became a corporate core value. "It was no longer something that was nice to do if we could get around to it. It became a part of the company's core strategy for survival and growth."

"It all begins with a desire at the highest level of management to bring about a cultural change," adds D. Ronald Webb, who spent seven years recruiting for Procter & Gamble. "It doesn't just happen on its own."

Webb calls P&G's strategy for creating and sustaining that kind of cultural change "The Four Rs: Recruit, Recognize, Reward, and Retain." The Four Rs have been successful for P&G. Nearly 6% of the company's Ph.D. chemists are black; that's almost twice the overall percentage in the chemical workforce.

To successfully recruit a diverse pool of candidates, Webb says, employers need to look broadly and not prejudge candidates according to their scientific pedigree. P&G begins recruiting promising chemistry graduate students with its Research & Technical Careers in Industry (RTCI) conferences.

"We invite a large number of minority doctoral students and other qualified candidates to participate in a three-day workshop," notes Ray D'Alonzo, who recently took over Webb's old position as manager of doctoral recruiting and university relations at P&G. The students tour P&G's facilities, meet the firm's managers and researchers, and network with other students at RTCI. Many ultimately sign on with the company.

The recognize and reward components of the Four Rs begin with current employees, Webb says. They're recognized and rewarded for bringing diversity into the workplace. "There's oversight, and it's managed to the point that it's not just words, it's about actions," Webb says. When hiring new employees, it's unacceptable to say it wasn't possible to find any qualified minority applicants. "That excuse doesn't work," Webb says.

Even though the cultural change starts at the top, Webb continues, it has to extend throughout the rank-and-file employees. "If you don't have that, it doesn't work," he says. If all employees at all levels aren't brought on board, minority workers may be seen as "quota hires" and, thus tainted, not receive the support they need from technicians and other vital support staff.

Over time, recruiters say, companies can employ enough minority candidates to achieve a critical mass. "Once you're at the point that you have a critical mass, it's infinitely easier to attract top minority scientists and engineers," D'Alonzo says. "That's where I think we have an advantage over other companies," Webb adds. "People literally see the difference when they walk on-site."

The chemists who spoke with C&EN say that even when the number of African Americans working at a company appears high, it's important to dig a little deeper and see what positions those scientists hold. Are they in leadership positions? Are they at the helm of R&D efforts? Are their current jobs on the pathway for promotion?

Black scientists should also pay attention to a firm's corporate culture, notes Chris Hollinsed, director of research grants at the American Chemical Society. Is the culture one that will allow the scientists to thrive?

Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN

Hollinsed tells the story of one black chemical engineer who took a position with a large chemical company. To successfully climb the corporate ladder there, most chemical engineers had to spend time working at a manufacturing site. The problem, Hollinsed says, is that the manufacturing sites tended to be in places that were unwelcoming, to put it mildly, to these diverse scientists.

The company sent the engineer to a facility in Texas. When she and her white husband went to visit the site, they couldn't find a place to eat dinner. "They stopped in a restaurant and nobody would serve them," Hollinsed says. "She thought the job was great, and she thought the plant was great, but she just couldn't live there."

Although the industrial sector seems to have developed successful strategies for nurturing chemists of color, academia seems to be struggling. For several years, University of Oklahoma chemistry professor Donna J. Nelson has been tracking the number of minorities and women who are either tenured or on the tenure track in the country's "top 50" chemistry departments. "Of these coveted positions, just 1.1% went to blacks in fiscal year 2001, 1.2% in fiscal 2003, and 1.3% in fiscal 2005," she writes in a report for the website for the "Percy Julian: Forgotten Genius" documentary, shown on the television program "NOVA."

She notes that although progress of blacks at the faculty level is measurable, at the current rate of increase of 0.05% per year, it will take 234 years, or no earlier than 2241, for the percentage of black chemists in tenured or tenure-track positions in the top 50 to reach parity with the percentage of blacks in the general population.

Just to put that far-off date into perspective, consider what science fiction has predicted for humankind in that time frame. "Star Trek" fans will undoubtedly note that Lieutenant Uhura, the black communications officer on the bridge of the Enterprise, is born in 2239. So, according to Hollywood, the 23rd century will bring galaxy-cruising spaceships and travel via teleportation. But according to extrapolations from current trends, the 23rd century is when the percentage of black faculty in top 50 chemistry departments will finally mirror the general population, or at least the population of the most recent census.

"The paucity of African American chemists in academia, particularly at our most prestigious colleges and universities, has reached crisis levels," says Gregory H. Robinson, a chemistry professor at the University of Georgia and a member of C&EN's advisory board. "Indeed, the dire situation for African American chemistry professors at Ph.D.-granting institutions is in stark contrast to the impressive strides that have been made by female chemists."

When an African American chemist begins an academic career at a Ph.D.-granting college or university, Robinson notes, the odds are that he or she will either be the only African American professor in the department, the first African American in the history of the department, or both. In 2007, that's not often the case with women faculty. Judging by the strides women have made, many chemistry departments have become more sensitive to their needs.

Robinson says he's been lucky to have held positions in chemistry departments that value diversity and are proactive about recruiting and retaining chemists of color. "To effectively attack this problem requires courage and vision," he explains. "The given department must have the courage to frankly assess itself and the vision to employ creative recruiting strategies, such as specifically targeted searches. Chemistry departments cannot simply continue to use the old bromide that the numbers of qualified African American Ph.D.s are just too low.


"THE WORK does not end once an African American chemistry professor has been hired," Robinson says. Attracting graduate students—the lifeblood of any successful faculty member—is often particularly difficult for African American professors. "The sad reality is that majority graduate students may be reluctant to join a research group headed by an African American. Of course, almost no one would ever admit to such views. Consequently, the university must provide the support that will allow an African American professor to combat such situations."

But there are ways for academia to be more successful. Consider the case of Thomas H. Epps III. Epps had several offers when he was searching for his first faculty position in chemical engineering. Given his background, that's not really a surprise. Epps is an alumnus of the ACS Scholars program and holds degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Minnesota, as well as having held a National Research Council postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Standards & Technology.

Epps says he chose to join the chemical engineering department at the University of Delaware, in part because of its strong program and pleasant location but also for its sensitivity to his needs. "I felt welcomed by the faculty from the start," he says. He says he could tell by the way he was treated and the questions he was asked that he was going to be supported there.

The faculty, for example, wanted to know if his wife liked the location, if her career goals could be met in the area, if there was anything they could do to make her feel more at ease about the decision. "They were genuinely interested in making sure I succeeded," he adds. "I felt like I didn't have to push hard to get the resources and equipment I needed to get my group started."

Delaware has a university-wide network for the minority faculty, Epps says. "The network seeks out new faculty and makes sure that we're happy," he says. He notes that he appreciates the school's commitment to diversity and says he doesn't feel there's a division between faculty and black faculty. "It's been a very welcoming environment as a whole," he says, and all his colleagues have been keen to provide mentorship regardless of their race.

And that is really critical for diversity throughout the chemical enterprise, Hollinsed says. "Everyone needs somebody who says, 'I'm taking you under my wing and bringing you into the system.' " Everyone needs the support that historically has been so richly lavished on the chemistry's golden boys. Hollinsed, by the way, also points out that being white and male doesn't necessarily make you one of those golden boys.

The chemists who spoke with C&EN say that if the chemical enterprise is going achieve the diversity that other businesses have managed to achieve, the community is going to have to stop viewing diversity as an issue only for people of color. If we're going to make a breakthrough, they say, everyone has to pull.


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