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Business

Women In Industry

Over the past year, women have made slow but steady progress in the U.S. chemical industry’s upper crust

by Alexander H. Tullo
August 9, 2010 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 88, ISSUE 32

If there were a “year of the woman” in the U.S. chemical industry, it would have been 2009, at least as reflected in C&EN’s survey of women in industry that year. For the first time, two chief executive officers appeared in the magazine’s annual list.

One of the CEOs was Ellen J. Kullman, who became the first female CEO of a publicly traded firm dedicated to chemicals when she took over the top job at DuPont at the beginning of 2009. Because DuPont is the second-largest public chemical company in the U.S. and one of the largest in the world, Kullman holds one of the most important positions in the entire chemical industry. Also, last year saw the addition of Lynn L. Elsenhans, CEO of refiner and chemical maker Sunoco.

There have been other years in which women broke glass ceilings in the chemical industry. In 2001, for instance, Fran Keeth became head of the U.S. arm of Shell Chemicals, and Nance Dicciani took over Honeywell International’s specialty materials business. Stephanie A. Burns got the top job at Dow Corning in 2004. But it wasn’t until Kullman and Elsenhans took their jobs that women became the public faces of stock-exchange-listed firms in an industry so accustomed to male management.

This year hasn’t brought the same kind of breakthrough. But that doesn’t mean that it has been a bad year for women at chemical companies. According to C&EN’s statistics, women have made modest gains on chemical company boards of directors and as chemical executives.

C&EN’s 2010 survey shows that women have made advances by all measures. The survey finds that 13.4% of the 396 directors at chemical companies are women, versus 13.2% in the 2009 edition. That translates to an average of 1.3 women sitting on the boards of the 42 firms included in the survey, versus 1.2 a year ago.

Women made sharper gains in the executive suite. Some 9.6% of the 418 executive officers at the chemical firms in the survey are women. Last year, that percentage was 8.3%. Looked at another way, there is an average of one female executive officer per company, up from 0.8 in 2009.

In addition to the two CEOs who appear on the survey, there is one female chief financial officer, Sallie B. Bailey of Ferro. However, she left her position with the company last month and will be replaced by Thomas R. Miklich.

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 either specialize in chemicals or have significant chemical businesses.

The 42 companies in the survey each year are adjusted to account for mergers and acquisitions. This year, Rohm and Haas isn’t included because it was purchased by Dow Chemical. It has been replaced by Omnova, a smaller company that, like Rohm and Haas, focuses on specialties. Terra Industries was acquired by CF Industries, which replaces it on the list. To make prior-year comparisons, C&EN updates the previous year’s figures to replace the acquired companies with the new firms.

Because of its methodology, C&EN’s survey doesn’t include some women who hold important jobs in the industry. One example is Dow Corning’s Burns, who leads a joint venture, not a public company. Another is Julia D. Harp, who became president of privately held Hexion Specialty Chemicals’ coatings and inks division last August, taking over from another woman, Sarah R. Coffin, who left the company.

C&EN’s survey is modeled on one developed by Catalyst, a New York City-based group that advocates for women’s advancement in the corporate world. Catalyst’s most recent survey of Fortune 500 companies, released in December 2009, found that women represent 15.2% of 5,506 directors, a somewhat higher percentage than C&EN’s survey found for the chemical industry.

Comparing Catalyst’s survey of executive officers with C&EN’s reveals that female managers in the chemical industry are further behind their counterparts in the broader corporate world. Some 13.5% of the executive officers at Fortune 500 firms are women, compared with 9.6% at chemical companies.

An emerging barrier to women attaining the kinds of positions that would put them on the surveys compiled by C&EN and Catalyst is the satisfaction of the women themselves with their employers, says Marcia Reynolds, a corporate trainer who recently published the book “Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction.” The younger a woman is when she starts with a company, she says, the less likely it is she’ll stay with that company long enough to work her way up to a senior-level position.

The needs of women in the workplace are evolving. In the 1980s and 1990s, Reynolds says, women may have sought assertiveness training or work-life balance programs. But that’s not the kind of help “wander women” are looking for. These women want to tackle increasingly difficult challenges, get recognition for their accomplishments, and know that their work is valuable.

“If they are not getting that, then it is not as important to them to stay long enough to get the title, because the title isn’t as important to them,” she tells C&EN. Often, wander women spend a decade or more moving from company to company instead of sticking with a firm long enough to move up the corporate ladder.

If managers want to retain such women, Reynolds says, they need to cultivate them. Managers need to sit down with employees and ask them what they want. Managers can then help these women “create the vision of the career that they want, and help point them in that direction,” she says. She has coached women who are bored with their jobs to work out a plan with their employers to redefine their roles.

The chemical industry may give the impression that it doesn’t offer enough challenges to make employment stimulating to wander women, Reynolds observes. She has advice for chemical companies: “They need to ask themselves how they can brand themselves in a different way that would demonstrate that they are innovative and that they are open to new ideas, because women really like to come up with new things,” she adds.

If they do that, perhaps more women will eventually appear in C&EN’s annual survey.

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