Chemistry & Life Sciences

Recruiting Senior Female Managers Often Challenging in Chemistry Industry

01.02.2011 -

The Right Chemistry - The quest for talent is one of the greatest challenges for companies across the globe and Univar is no exception; hiring the right mix of talented senior management is crucial in maintaining the long-term success of the business. However diversity is not always easy to achieve, particularly in an industry that is perceived by many to be male-dominated and unwelcoming to women.

Sheila Mowatt, director of Operations, Univar EMEA, has worked in the industry for more than 20 years and has seen a lot of progress since she started out, when a manager suggested it was preferable for women not to wear trousers.
"As a female employee you were expected to wear a skirt," she says. "Another time, when I was recruiting an operator the candidate handed me his coat, assuming I was the secretary."

These days more and more women are entering the industry and rising through the ranks, though some feel that there is sometimes a bit of a "boys' club" at the higher levels of management, making it difficult for them to achieve the very top positions.
"Either you have very open-minded leaders who go for diversity or those who look for people that are the same," says Sonia Pires, director, SHE & Sustainability, Univar EMEA.

While it can be more comfortable to recruit people who are unlikely to challenge you because they have a similar outlook to your own, there is a real danger that your company will be unable to evolve and innovate at the rate that your competitors do. As Pires points out, "If you do things the way you have always done, you will get the results you have always got."

Quotas Perhaps a ‘Necessary Evil'

In recent years significant legislation has been introduced to promote diversity in the workplace, though many have mixed feeling about this. Pires is uncomfortable with recruitment quotas as it forces people to hire women rather than encouraging them to do so of their own accord but concedes that it is perhaps a "necessary evil." Mowatt agrees, saying that for a company to make real progress, senior management must truly embrace diversity themselves.

David Jukes, president of Univar EMEA, understands the value of fostering a diverse leadership team and recognizes the role he and his staff have to play in achieving this.

"It's a mindset: You have to want to do it and then you will. It needs to come from the top," he explains.
Univar does not enforce quotas for hiring women but instead tries to create an open and meritocratic environment that is attractive to female candidates.

‘Diversity Attracts Diversity'

Introducing the option for staff to work flexibly, both in terms of times and location, has been very well received by both male and female employees and has led to increased output. In addition it enables Univar to attract talented female staff for whom the option to work from home is essential; women who would otherwise go to another employer.
Having women in senior positions also filters down through the rest of the company ensuring that the drive for diversity gathers momentum naturally.

"Diversity attracts diversity," asserts Jukes. "Once 30% of your leadership team is comprised of women, you will naturally attract more women coming through."

Mowatt is one of four women in Univar EMEA's Leadership Team, which is made up of the 12 most senior managers in the region. She spends part of her time mentoring more junior women in the company and agrees that having women in top positions generates a pervasive culture that is very encouraging and attractive for other women.

Common Misconceptions

While companies like Univar have done much to make the chemical engineering sector more appealing to women, there is still a misconception in many schools that it is an industry where women are not welcome. This is particularly true in the UK, says Mowatt, where she feels companies should be more active in reaching out to female students who are considering their career choices. This year she will be conducting a series of seminars with male and female students in Scotland to educate them on the opportunities in chemical engineering and dispel some of the myths surrounding the sector.

Janet Wang, Finance and Administration manager, Univar China, echoes Mowatt, explaining that traditional views about work have been very influential in China, though this is beginning to change.

"Traditional parents will often prefer their daughters to do an arts degree and their sons to study science, but this is happening less and less; nowadays young people are making their own decisions about what they want for their future."
In Southern Europe and in the U.S. this seems to be less of a problem. In countries like Italy, Portugal and Greece it has long been common for women to work as chemical engineers while in the U.S., schools are much more active in promoting a wide variety of career options to their students, often working with companies to do so.

Taking The Initiative

While much of the responsibility for promoting diversity lies with companies themselves, women must also take the initiative and be active in pursuing the top jobs.

"If you go back over the last 20 or 30 years, there have been plenty of women in the pipeline, but we have to ask ourselves why they are leaving, why are they not achieving," says Shirley Schumacher, vice president - Sales & Marketing, Univar USA. She agrees that in some cases the industry can still be a challenging environment for women but says that they should still take responsibility for their own career progression.
Women often prefer to be shoulder-tapped, which means have to reach out, which might mean missing out on some great candidates who are not putting themselves forward.

Jane Wells, vice president - Marketing, Univar USA, also sees networking as an important asset when it comes to career progression and notes that there are now many more opportunities for women to network professionally than in the past. Pires agrees, though feels that many women are still not making the most of these opportunities.

"Sometimes women are not as comfortable with networking as their male counterparts," she says, "but you just have to get out there and do it - don't be shy!"

Diverse Experiences and Insights

The benefits of having a mixed team at the top tier of your business are clear.
"Bringing people from different backgrounds into the most senior levels of management ensures that when developing strategy you are discussing different viewpoints based on diverse experiences and insights," says Wells. "This can only be a good thing," she adds.

As well as improving strategic decision-making by providing different perspectives, there is also a growing awareness that women typically possess certain "softer" skills that can give them an advantage in certain situations.

Wang says that women are often a little more cautious and think more about how they are communicating, a view echoed by Schumacher.
"Men often see things in black and white whereas women look for the nuances. We are more in touch with body language, emotions and feelings which can be a real asset during negotiations, particularly when it comes to diffusing tense situations."

It is clear that the ability to recruit and retain talented women into senior roles can provide companies with significant advantages over those which do not. Creating a supportive and encouraging environment will help to foster young female talent, encouraging them into more senior roles, as well as attracting top women from other companies who will bring valuable experience, contacts and skills with them.
The chemicals industry has made a great deal of progress in recent years, and while there is still much to do, right now it is already a very positive environment for young women looking to build a successful career.

As Schumacher points out, "There is no glass ceiling anymore; making it to a top position in the industry is not easy and requires sacrifice, but now women have the choice over their future. I am incredibly proud of the workplace that women of my generation and I are leaving behind for our daughters who already realize they have the power to be anything they want to be." 


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