Celebrating women: PPCJ speaks to leading women in the chemicals industry

08 March 2024

PPG is celebrating International Women’s Day by hosting Exceptional Women in Chemicals, a live panel discussion bringing together key companies in chemicals to elevate visibility for gender equality in the industry. PPCJ spoke to key panel members from PPG, BASF, Dow Chemicals, Univar Solutions and Covestro, to get their take on gender equality in the chemicals sector and their advice for women in the industry

From left to right: Cara Madzy, Senior Director EHS and Security, Geismar Sites, BASF;

Christine Bryant, EVP and Global Head of Tailored Urethanes, Covestro;

Irene Tasi, Senior Vice President of Industrial Coatings, PPG;

Jennifer A. McIntyre, Senior Vice President, Chief People & Culture Officer, Univar Solutions;

and Joanne Sekella, Vice President, Coatings & Performance Monomers, Dow Chemicals.

Q. What do you think are the main challenges and barriers facing women, when it comes to equality in the workplace within the chemicals industry?

Irene Tasi: Historically, there has been an absence of female representation in the chemicals industry. However, as more women pursue STEM education and careers, we see this trend change. Our responsibility as leaders is to mentor these talents and recognise that success in our industry extends beyond chemistry itself. Capabilities in strategy, sales, marketing and HR all impact our business and can introduce even more women to the chemicals sector. I’m an example of that, as I entered the chemicals space as a CGO. We must lead by example for other young women who might be afraid to take that initial step and help others to consider it as a viable position for themselves.

Christine Bryant: The chemicals industry, like many others, has historically been male dominated. So, while we’ve made a lot of progress and are seeing greater diversity in the industry today, we haven’t quite caught up to our history. There is still a lack of female role models in higher level positions, which can make it more difficult for women in their career journey to envision those opportunities for themselves – and more hesitant to pursue those roles. We’ve all heard the statistic about how women are less likely to apply for jobs if they don’t meet 100% of the qualifications, where our male counterparts are comfortable applying if they meet 60%. This confidence gap – which is limiting our own potential – can be reinforced by cultural barriers, such as unconscious bias and gender stereotypes. All of which are contributing to the gender gap. This is why it’s so important to continuously strengthen our focus on creating a more inclusive culture and industry.

Jennifer McIntyre: Women have been consistently under-represented as a % of the overall workforce throughout my 35+ year career.  When you are an “only”, it can be hard to have your voice heard and that is a barrier to equality. There are assumptions made about women in chemical operations – it’s too dirty for them, too rough, can she handle it? I had someone ask me if I minded my hair getting messed up with a hard hat.  This limits your opportunities in operations.  Other roles will have other pre-conceived notions that can be limiting.

The chemicals industry remains a male-dominated industry.  For women, it can feel like an all-boys club and you do not “belong” to the club.  “Belonging” is an important element to success.  When you feel that you belong, it allows you to be your best self and this leads to great results.

More broadly, things we admire in men are often viewed as negatives in women (too aggressive, sharp elbows, too ambitious, etc.). There are assumptions made about women with children – she won’t want to travel, she wouldn’t relocate, her husband has a job – that can limit opportunities for women. Also, I don’t think women always feel “safe” to raise concerns when they see bias.  They are afraid it will hurt their career if they are the ones to raise concerns and point out bias.

Q. Do you feel positive about gender equality in this industry, or do you feel there is still more work to be done?

Cara Madzy: Yes and yes! There has been progress over my 25 years in operations/manufacturing, however the work is not done. There is no doubt that we need more women in manufacturing. It’s crucial to continue being intentional with how we recruit, develop and retain diverse talent. I mean, manufacturing is pretty awesome – at BASF, we are creating chemistry for a sustainable future, to make the world a better place. And there are many different opportunities within manufacturing so there is something for everyone.

Christine Bryant: Both. Early in my career, I remember attending meetings where I was the only female in the room, surrounded by male peers. My experience is completely different today, and I’m encouraged by how far we’ve come. But, we have to acknowledge that there is more work to be done. Not only do we need to focus on inspiring more women to pursue a career in STEM, but equally as important is motivating them to stay for the journey.

I feel fortunate to work for a company that is actively taking steps to build a strong, diverse workforce. And I know we’re not alone. Many organisations, like Covestro, have placed an emphasis on attracting, promoting and retaining female talent. How we tackle gender equality might look different from one company to the next. But, as members of an industry that runs on innovation, it’s critical that we continue to push for a culture where everyone feels valued, supported and empowered.

Irene Tasi: I feel that while there is certainly more work to be done in the industry, we have come a long way for gender equality in chemicals. I’m very proud that PPG surpasses the national average of women in leadership positions. For example, PPG’s Board of Directors comprise 25% women and its management roles comprise 21% women, and that number continues to grow.

Jennifer McIntyre: I do feel positive about gender equality in this industry.  I have seen real improvements in female representation over the last 5-10 years.  I feel as though we have achieved critical mass, not everywhere but definitely better, such that we are no longer seen as anomalies.

I believe we have done a lot to raise awareness on bias.  Things I used to have to point out to my male colleagues, they are self-reflecting on aloud.  And yes, there is still more work to be done!  Inclusion and belonging are meant to lift everyone.  I want to be sure that gender equality is view positively by men and women.  Bias is still there and we need to continue to raise awareness in order to reduce unconscious bias wherever possible.

Joanne Sekella: I’m encouraged by the progress that has been made in recent years while also acknowledging there is much more to be done. We must sustain this momentum and our resolve to affect meaningful, lasting change for gender equality in our industry and more broadly across the global workforce.

At Dow, we’ve made significant progress at all levels of our organisation. Around 65%  of our independent directors are now women or US ethnic minorities, and all five directors added in the last five years are women or US ethnic minorities. Since 2017, women and US ethnic minority representation on Dow’s leadership team have bothimproved from less than 10% to 50%. Collectively, women and US ethnic minorities represent nearly 85% of our leadership team. And we continue to improve overall women (currently 30% of our workforce) and US ethnic minority (currently 28% of our workforce) representation across our company.

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Q. Your company is a leading, international player. Do you notice any geographic differences in terms of female representation?

Jennifer McIntyre: 77% of our employees are in the Americas.  I am proud to share that we are at slightly better than gender parity for women in people manager roles relative to our overall female employee population across the Americas – North and South.  As of today, 34.2% of all employees in the Americas are women and 35.2% of our people managers are women.

We are not quite at gender parity in EMEA.  We have a higher % of women in our EMEA workforce (44% of all employees) and women account for 37% of our people managers there.  We have very talented women in EMEA and are beginning to grow the pipeline of leaders. We have a very small presence in Asia, with less than 100 employees.

Irene Tasi: Non-frontline employees have the highest global female representation at PPG. This includes roles within the labs, offices or sales and includes chemists, engineers, managers, directors, executives, etc. We are proud of the progress we have made over the last several years to increase the female representation here. Interestingly, our global female representation is greatest in EMEA, followed by the US. We have opportunities to grow in APAC and LATAM, and we’re excited about what that growth will look like enterprise-wide in 2024.

Q. Similarly, do you feel that age affects female gender equality in the workplace?

Irene Tasi: While unconscious bias exists everywhere I think young women are better positioned in the chemical industry workplace today than they were 10 or 20 years ago, because of today’s stronger female representation near the top. Today, 81% of PPG’s global population is Generation Y/Millennials (born 1981 to 1996) and Generation X (born 1965 to 1980). I am confident that in the future we will see even more women in leadership roles in a traditionally male-dominated industry.

Jennifer McIntyre: I sometimes still see women of child-bearing ages suffering assumptions about career commitment.

Q. What, in your opinion, is the best way to tackle and improve gender equality within the chemicals industry?

Christine Bryant: First, we need to look inward and acknowledge where disparities exist. Then, we need to commit to change and articulate that commitment. Continue to push for a more diverse, equitable and inclusive culture – and, lead by example. We’re all on this journey together, but change starts at the top.

At Covestro, we have strong leadership support of diversity programmes and executive sponsors for all 12 of our employee resource groups (ERGs). I proudly serve as the executive sponsor of our FIT group, which is focused on promoting health and wellness, but I’m also actively engaged with our women’s network. So, I can speak firsthand to the impact that our ERGs have on the culture; they create a sense of community, belonging and purpose. This is why it’s so critical to ensure they have the support and resources they need to drive cultural change.

In addition, we also have to be intentional about creating an environment where everyone can thrive and have access to equal pay, competitive benefits, flexible work options, continuous learning and developmental opportunities. The last part is key. If we want to attract and retain more women in the industry, we need to introduce programmes and internal processes that encourage development and promotion of our female talent. That’s something we can do together as an industry. And, lastly, we need to shine a light on our female role models to inspire and pave the way for others.

Jennifer McIntyre: Talking about it with both men and women. I want women to feel encouraged to strive for opportunities.  I want men to recognise their unconscious bias, move beyond it, and advocate to their peers to do the same.  Women should feel safe to raise concerns when they see them and know that male allies are there to support progress.

I am a believer in pushing for diverse candidate slates for open roles.  We have found that moving to more gender-neutral language in job postings has encouraged a lot of women to post for roles that they might have otherwise not tried for.

Irene Tasi: One of the best ways to improve gender equality within the industry is to ensure people managers are educated on the importance of inclusivity and trained to be inclusive leaders. As women leaders, it is our responsibility to help motivate the next generation and ensure managers have the necessary skills to prioritise equity. Holding inclusive events, like this one, help to facilitate candid conversations and equip women with the confidence and tools to thrive and it opens the door to even more progress and opportunity.

Joanne Sekella: To affect lasting change in gender equality, companies must set clear, meaningful targets; disclose those targets and the progress against them; and hold the organisation and your people accountable. At Dow, we’ve done and continue to do just that.

We’re transparent about our inclusion and diversity goals and progress, and the work yet to do; we make our U.S. EEO-1 data publicly available and we voluntarily disclose additional granularity on our workforce demographics through our “INtersections” Ambition Report. We’ve also directly linked inclusion and diversity metrics to our annual performance award programme for all people leaders and an additional layer of top leaders globally. This accountability and transparency is delivering clear improvements.

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Q. You are an example of a woman who has achieved a high career status in the chemicals industry. What advice would you give to other women, looking to emulate your success?

Cara Madzy: First and foremost be yourself, your authentic self. I have found success when I have been myself. Have confidence that you can do anything, put yourself into a position where you and your team can win and do it with integrity. My definition of winning/success is “make something better than it was before.” This applies to people, process, my team, anything. Find your passion, find your strength, and deliver on it. Make sure to network and find a mentor, champion, a cohort who you can talk with and be vulnerable with as you work through challenges and even celebrate successes. Build a strong team around you and use your knowledge and experience to pay it forward to help future generations of women in manufacturing. Be all-in.

Jennifer McIntyre: I do think this is personal as everyone has their own aspirations as well as demons, so I can only speak to my own. I struggled to see myself in a top level role – (1) the women who had those roles seemed to have made choices that I didn’t want to make (that was an assumption I made which was incorrect), (2) there weren’t a lot of women in senior roles and (3) I felt a lot of societal pressure to be a stay at home mom.

Advice #1 – With the help of a supportive partner and/or supportive family/friends, you can manage a big career and raise great kids.  My 3 boys are 31, 29, and 26 and they are well-adjusted, kind, productive men.

I did not always have the confidence that I should have had that I could handle a role.  I thought I needed to tick more boxes. Sometimes, we need to take responsible risks and try for something even when it seems a little bit of a stretch goal.

Advice #2 – If not you, then who?  You are far more qualified for the role than you realise. Early in my career, I thought I needed to be “tougher” and I made some choices that were not true to who I am as a person.

Advice #3 – Always be true to yourself.  That is the best version of you and will create the best path towards a rewarding career.

Christine Bryant: Trust and believe in yourself, and don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. We already have enough barriers, so we don’t need to create our own. If someone doesn’t want to give you a seat at the table, pull up a chair. Take stretch assignments, apply for roles where you have interest, create career goals and work with mentors to help make them happen. Strategic networking and understanding how to recognise and leverage your unique skills are also critical for success. And, lastly, pay it forward. Be a role model to other women and support their development. We need to lift each other up if we want to see change.

Irene Tasi: I would encourage women to take risks and be courageous to pursue new opportunities even if they don’t feel adequately prepared. Whether it’s a bigger role where you will have to scale your leadership, or a new function, industry etc., where you might not have a deep level of expertise it’s important to push through any self-doubt and remind yourself that you can leverage the capabilities you’ve built to continue to grow and make an impact.

Q. Is your company involved in any programmes that aim to encourage gender equality in the chemicals industry?

Irene Tasi: Absolutely. PPG has several employee resource networks (ERNs) that aim to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. The Women’s Leadership Network (WLN) plays a big role at PPG to attract, retain, and advance women. Its goal is to create an inclusive and supportive environment that recognizes the value that women bring to the workplace. In addition to hosting several webinars and discussions of women empowerment (including this event), the WLN organised a “50 ways to Break the Bias” workshop as part of the Men as Allies campaign to encourage men to support women’s careers. The WLN has also raised thousands of dollars for non-profit organisations such as Dress for Success that help women gain financial independence and return to the workforce.

Jennifer McIntyre: Univar recently started participating in and sponsoring Women in Chemicals. We are a significant sponsor for the Chemical Education Foundation and specifically You Be the Chemist Challenge.  The Challenge is a team-based competition for fifth- through to eighth-grade students that builds interest and excitement among students to continue science and STEM-related education throughout high school, skilled trades, college and into the workforce.  Our employees volunteer to help support the Challenge – it’s a lot of fun and encourages young women and men to pursue careers in chemistry. From the participation, we are seeing increases in gender balance among youth interested in STEM education and careers.

Cara Madzy: Yes, BASF is actively committed to supporting STEM education for all, beginning with our Kids’ Lab and Teens’ lab programmes, which are hand-on science and chemistry lessons taught in K-12 schools. For 11th and 12th graders, our TECH Academy programme goes deeper into the skills needed in technical and craft careers and allows student to interact with industry professionals and BASF employees who share their experience and provide insight into potential careers. For college students, our The North American Apprenticeship Development Program provides on-the-job training and a full-time wage. This program is focused on attracting more female talent to technical roles, supporting our goal of increasing the number of women in manufacturing.

BASF also supports outside efforts to advance women in STEM careers, including our close partnerships with the Manufacturing Institute’s Women Make Awards, The Society of Women Engineers and Women in Manufacturing.

For women who join BASF, we have Employee Resource Groups plus professional development programs including our FLAME programme, which stands for Female Leaders Advancing Manufacturing Excellence. It’s all part of our focus on building an even more diverse and inclusive workplace by attracting, developing and retaining diverse talent. And from my perspective, all of these efforts are working – I see more women in all levels of the organisation who are role models for other female employees. And we are all strong allies and advocates for each other.

Joanne Sekella: Dow has long advocated for and actively participates in a broad range of organisations and activities aimed at advancing women in the workplace – within the chemicals industry, across the broader manufacturing sector and beyond.

Dow is engaged in leading global platforms including but not limited to: Women’s Empowerment Principles, a partnership of UN Women and the UN Global Compact that joins 167 companies and other organizations from around the world in their mission to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment; CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion™, the largest CEO-driven business commitment to advance inclusion and diversity in the workplace; long-standing partner and supporter of Society of Women Engineers – the world’s largest advocate for women in engineering; Chair and CEO serves on the Catalyst Board of Directors, and Dow has been involved in the Catalyst CEO Champions for Change programme since its inception; NAM (National Association of Manufacturers) 30×50 Campaign, which aims to add 500,000 Women to the manufacturing workforce by 2030.

Christine Bryant: I’m proud to say that Covestro has a very strong focus on increasing diversity and gender equality in the industry – both through our own programs, as well as external initiatives.

At Covestro, we have a robust STEM outreach programme to bring hands-on science education to underrepresented students in our site communities. We also partner with organisations that share our passion for strengthening gender equality – in the industry and in the communities where we live and work. Through our partnership with greenlight for girls, for instance, we hosted numerous workshops around the world, bringing science fun and education to thousands of middle- and high-school age girls. And, we have been actively engaged with The Manufacturing Institute’s Women MAKE program since its inception in 2013. This programme aims to recognise women in manufacturing who exemplify leadership in their companies. We also invest our time, money and skills to support community-based efforts through organisations, like the YWCA, Strong Women Strong Girls and the Girl Scouts, to name a few.

Many of our employees also serve in a leadership capacity on various boards within the industry, so we leverage those connections as opportunities to support and strengthen gender diversity efforts.

Photo credit: PPG 

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