Catalysts for change

Women make up a good part of the chemical industry—except the top. Why only 1 in 10 rises to senior level.

When Kim Ann Mink was a girl, her parents gave her a chemistry set as a gift. Later, both she and her sister were sent to college, becoming the first in their family to go. At Hamilton College, Mink was the only female chemistry major in her class. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry at Duke University, then joined the research and development (R&D) department at Rohm and Haas in 1988.

Today, after a long career that included several posts at Rohm and Haas and then at Dow Chemical Company, Mink is CEO of Innophos Holdings Inc. She is the only female head of a publicly traded US chemical company, after taking some career twists, including leaving R&D and becoming an account manager selling refinery process chemicals in Texas, Louisiana, and parts of the Southwest.

Now, she is a role model for women in the male-dominated US chemicals industry, a sector striving to expand career paths to advance high-potential employees—both men and women.

“Savvy leaders in this field are looking at the data and trends, and how talent development can improve diversity in this sector,” says Alex Martin, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and global sector leader of the firm’s Industrial Manufacturing practice. “They understand that the chemical sector needs to change its culture first, becoming more diverse and inclusive, and open paths for women at the top.”

Figure 1. Women’s plunging leadership roles. In the US chemicals sector, the percentage of women plummets as they rise in the ranks (numbers shown below are maximum percentages in given role). There is only one woman heading a publicly traded US chemical company.

The firm’s study cites federal and other data showing negative trends for women in US chemicals. The starting numbers are promising: An estimated 40% to 50% of the industry’s college recruits are women. But, as careers progress, the percentages plummet: 30% to 35% of supervisors and first-level managers are female, while just 10% of senior-level executives are women. What happens so more women don’t rise, leaving Mink in a lonely spot at the top?

“Based on what influential experts in the field discussed with us, and the firm’s deep experience, we understand that companies have clear, concrete, measurable actions they can take to change their culture and ensure all their talent processes are open and equitable for all,” says Audra Bohannon, a Korn Ferry senior partner. “The question is will they? Commitment needs to come from the top down, sending a message of accountability, that addressing this challenge is critical to the business.”

She noted that the firm’s study, in detailing ways companies are improving opportunities for their female staff, also sees the key role that mentors and sponsors can play, and how women may need to step up, for example, by taking risks and better positioning themselves for more complex, demanding, and visible assignments, even if they may not feel ready.

“We’re getting deeper into the 21st century,” Martin says, “and industry leaders can plainly see how times are changing but still half their workforce is underused. That’s not good for companies, nor for this valuable talent. Leaders are hopeful, though: If this male-dominated field can change, it will send important signals throughout the manufacturing sector.”

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