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Women In Industry

Women made some strides at the very top but have little to show elsewhere

by Alexander H. Tullo
July 20, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 29

In the decade that C&EN has conducted its annual survey of women as directors and executive officers of large U.S. chemical firms, at least some women have held positions of high responsibility. But there have never been women in the top spot: chief executive officer.

Now there are. On Jan. 1, 2009, Ellen J. Kullman took the reins at DuPont, the third-largest U.S. chemical maker, from longtime CEO Charles O. Holliday Jr.

The move was hardly a surprise. Kullman had been one of the job’s leading candidates for years. Before her appointment as CEO, she led four DuPont business segments and was also vested with sales, marketing, and environmental sustainability oversight at the company.

Kullman ran DuPont’s safety and protection segment from 2002 to 2006. That business sells materials such as Tyvek, which is used to weatherproof buildings, and Kevlar, which is found in bulletproof vests. When Kullman was appointed CEO, Holliday noted that she expanded the segment’s revenues from $3.5 billion to $5.5 billion per year and made it DuPont’s “highest-earning business.”

Also last year, Lynn L. Elsenhans was made CEO of Sunoco. Elsenhans was a Royal Dutch/Shell veteran, last serving as executive vice president of global manufacturing with oversight for Shell’s chemical and refining operations.

But Sunoco is much more of a refiner and fuel retailer than it is a chemical firm. Its $2.9 billion in annual chemical sales represents only about 5.4% of its total revenues. In fact, Elsenhans has been clear that she is interested in divesting Sunoco’s chemical operations.

Still, the appointments of Kullman and Elsenhans represent a milestone for the chemical industry. Women have led large chemical businesses before. Fran Keeth and Stacy Methvin both held the top spots at the U.S. arm of Shell Chemicals. And Nance Dicciani led Honeywell International’s specialty materials business from 2001 until her retirement last year. Stephanie A. Burns has been running Dow Corning since 2004.

But these breakthroughs came at businesses that were either joint ventures or segments within large companies. Kullman and Elsenhans are the heads of publicly traded companies. In addition to being responsible for day-to-day operations, they must handle duties such as conference calls with analysts and interviews on cable business channels.

Aside from the unprecedented rise of women to the tops of DuPont and Sunoco, C&EN’s annual survey notes some progress in the number of women in the boardroom but no overall changes among women serving in management. The 42 firms surveyed have an average of 1.3 females serving as director, up from 1.2 last year. Out of 397 board positions, 13.9% are held by women, a significant increase from 12.7% the year before.

Women are still treading water in the executive suite. On average, 0.9 female executive officers work for each company, and 8.6% of the 428 executive officers appearing on the survey are women. These results are unchanged from the 2008 numbers.

To conduct the survey, C&EN consults annual reports, proxy statements, and 10-K filings with the Securities & Exchange Commission from major, publicly traded U.S. companies that make chemicals, wholly or in part.

Two companies fell off the list this year. Hercules was acquired by Ashland, and polyester maker Wellman went bankrupt and emerged from the ordeal as a private company. These companies have been replaced by Pittsburgh-based coal tar chemical maker Koppers and Cranbury, N.J.-based phosphate chemicals maker Innophos. Last year’s survey has been revised accordingly to compare the same 42 companies.

C&EN’s report was inspired by surveys conducted by Catalyst, a New York City-based organization dedicated to the advancement of women in business. Catalyst’s most recent surveys of women serving as directors and corporate officers at Fortune 500 companies were released in December 2008. The group found that 15.2% of the 5,610 director positions at these firms were held by women, versus 14.8% in 2007. Its survey of corporate officers found that 15.7% of corporate officers at these companies were women, a slight increase from 15.4% a year earlier.

Catalyst’s figures are comparable with C&EN’s for the directors. However, for company employees, Catalyst compares corporate officers, a less concretely defined and broader category than the standard C&EN uses—executive officers listed in 10-K filings. As a result, Catalyst’s numbers for representation of female executives tend to be larger.

The National Association for Female Executives (NAFE), another advocacy group, recognized two chemical firms this year for their efforts to advance women. DuPont and Dow Chemical were included in the organization’s annual list of the Top 50 Companies for Executive Women.

NAFE President Betty Spence tells C&EN that her organization, composed of 20,000 female executives, receives hundreds of applications from companies. She says NAFE looks at how many women serve as directors and executives, especially ones with profit and loss (P&L) responsibility. At DuPont, 25% of the executives are women with P&L duties—not bad, she says, when only 26% of DuPont’s employees are female. At Dow, 20% of the executives with P&L responsibility are women, and women make up 26% of Dow’s employees.

NAFE also considers whether companies have programs in place meant to encourage women to advance in their careers. Spence cites a DuPont program that she calls “2/2/2”: The heads of major business units pledge to move at least two women up to the levels of vice president, business director, and other management positions. “That is the kind of effort that can really, really make a difference,” she contends.

Spence thinks that better representation of women can make a difference for companies as well. She points to studies like a 2006 survey conducted by the Wellesley Centers for Women, which showed that a critical mass of three women on the board of directors improves corporate governance.

“Women were not running things when the economy collapsed,” Spence says. “Women are now being asked to help put it back together again. There are things about women’s management styles that are really helpful at this particular time. You want collaboration. You want people who are listening and coming up with new ideas. You don’t want that heavy-testosterone competitive thing going on at this point because we have to rebuild what has been broken.”


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