Leading ladies

C&I Issue 5, 2017

In recent years, there has been a global push to get more women into leadership positions in business and industry. Progress has differed between sectors, but the chemistry industry still falls decidedly behind much of the corporate world.

Despite this, a recent research project into leadership that I conducted suggests that women are actually better suited to these senior management positions, posing an important question about current management hierarchies.

It must be said that chemical firms don’t often modify their boards or top management, so the pace of change is slower than in many other sectors. In fact, according to the latest C&EN annual survey (2016, 94, 22), women occupy 16.7% of 430 board director seats at 43 US firms within large chemical businesses. This is an increase from 16.2% in 2015. The case is much the same in Europe, where in the 13 large chemical firms that C&EN surveyed, 28.6% of 154 board seats were occupied by women. Just 10% of top executives in these firms are female.

Despite this, my research, conducted with my BI Norwegian Business School colleague Lars Glasø, concluded that women score higher than men in four out of the five traits that are key to successful management. By surveying the personality traits of more than 2900 managers – more than 900 women, more than 900 in senior management and nearly 900 from the public sector – we found that female leaders scored higher than men in all but one of the categories measured. These include initiative and clear communication, openness and ability to innovate, sociability and supportiveness as well as methodical management and goal setting.

So why are chemical firms, in particular, failing to acknowledge and utilise these truths? Our survey found that the one trait in which women fell behind men was their emotional stability and ability to withstand job-related pressure and stress. Perhaps it is instructive that the industries where we see the fewest females in management positions are ones that carry a lot more pressure and stress, coupled with longer working hours. Yet this cannot be the only reason women are struggling to smash the glass ceiling.

Although many chemical firms are equal opportunities recruiters and openly support initiatives like female mentorships, training and networking, these are clearly not enough to affect change. It has historically been easy for firms to fall into the trap of viewing issues such as gender parity and diversity as a part of corporate social responsibility or fairness in the workplace, rather than a business opportunity. In fact, according to the C&EN survey, the distribution of women within executive roles is much higher in sectors such as HR and businesses, but lower in legal and financial. These, much like the chemical and scientific sectors, are steeped in tradition and are often less willing to embrace new eras of business management.

As Barnaby Parker, CEO of Venquis, the leading business change and transformation consultancy, says: ‘Culture is the issue at the heart of gender diversity in a range of industries, including financial services and technology, to name two. These sectors have essentially been designed, developed and implemented by men and consequently they’re often not very good at attracting women to work for them.’ Challenging the idea that diversity is simply a tick-box procedure rather than a way of increasing productivity, is the key to changing attitudes of firms and guiding more women to senior management.

Yet something must be said about the lower dispensation of females within the sector. The admission rates of younger women into science have historically fallen below those of alternative sectors. In order to tackle this issue, Sherry Duff, Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at Innophos, one of the worlds' leading producers of specialty phosphates, believes that creating a proper, robust talent pipeline of female chemistry leaders should begin with encouraging young girls to take an interest in STEM subjects.

This is a tried and tested method, exemplified in the success of industry leaders such as Anca Rusu, Project Director of Royal Dutch Shell’s Pennsylvania Chemicals Project. This initiative will oversee the construction of a massive petrochemical plant in Monaca, which is the firm’s largest North American project, costing billions of dollars of investment. When activity peaks in 2018, Rusu will lead a workforce of 6000 people. But how did she become interested in the sector? As a child, Rusu was inspired to become an engineer by her father, a metallurgical engineer, and her uncle, a professor of chemical engineering in her native Bucharest, Romania. Spurred on by their successes, she undertook a double degree in mechanical and electrical engineering and began her illustrious career.

So it appears as though the battle to get more women into leadership positions must be fought on two fronts. Firstly, we must get more women interested in the sector at an earlier age, and secondly, firms must recognise and embrace the tangible benefits of female leadership.

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