Chemical sector becoming more appealing to women

Women in the workforce

18 May 2010 08:14  [Source: ICB]

Diversity is key to attracting the best in an industry that has traditionally been male dominated

Industry Viewpoint
Detlef Prangenberg/Univar EMEA

WAIVING THE strictures of nationality, class, culture and gender is the solution to overcoming one of the biggest hurdles women encounter in the chemical industry, where historically men have done the buying, selling and producing.


 Rex Features

There has been a marked change in attitude towards females in the workplace over the past few decades. Whereas 20 years ago, women in the office were more commonly secretaries or receptionists, today, more women are slowly but surely coming to the fore and leading. This is thanks to their education, hard work and top qualifications.

School subjects such as physics and chemistry, which were needed to enter the chemical industry, were not those that women were attracted to or encouraged to take. Nowadays, in some countries, more women study these sciences at university than men.

John van Osch, president of Univar Europe, Middle East and Africa, believes that diversity attracts diversity. "Once 20% of your leadership team [comprises] women, you will naturally attract more women coming through," he says.

"It's a mind set," he continues. "You have to want to do it and then you will. It needs to come from the top."

Univar Europe employees stress that the company does its utmost to embrace diversity as it attracts and recruits top talent. Furthermore, looking at the facts, this seems to be paying off. "I myself have never worked for a company more diverse and keener to ensure the male/female balance in the workforce, though achieving this kind of diversity demands special effort and specific focus," says van Osch.

Univar's flexibility and working environment attracts women. Good, talented people want to be flexible and to be able to work, for example, from home. Many women simply cannot work without that option. Four out of 12 of the leadership team are women; a year ago there were none.

The gender balance remains tipped in favour of the male workforce, but it is improving. In some countries, it is catching up and even toppling the balance the other way (see box). In the Iberian region, women hold two-thirds of the management roles and 49% of Univar's staff there is female. Of the new recruits in 2009-2010, two-thirds in Belgium were women, 55% were women in the UK, and in Central and Eastern Europe it was half.

Sabine Duyfjes, Univar's general counsel, EMEA, and one of Univar's four female members of the EMEA Leadership Team, points to a definite move towards hiring more women and increasing diversity in the industry.

"There has been a big change for women to get a chance to fulfill those jobs that traditionally have been male dominated," Duyfjes says. "There are women in higher positions, and at Univar, there is a lot of support for women. It's good to help other women progress in their careers," she adds.

Today, 40% of Univar's 2,300 employees are women. The company believes it important to present itself in a diversified way and emphasize areas such as marketing for which it is easier to attract women. The industry also gives the opportunity to promote a technical background with a more female-friendly side. Univar's product portfolio includes areas that are traditionally among women's interests, such as beauty and health care products.

Nevertheless, until recently, the industry didn't really develop or appreciate the benefits of an area such as communications, which traditionally has been more of a female role, explains Catherine Lennon, who manages Univar's EMEA communications.

"Communications is a two-way process. It's about talking and listening and, in general, females tend to have a greater ability to listen and more sensitivity in communicating to different groups," says Lennon.

Another issue is equal pay. "Salaries are sometimes unequal between men and women," points out Sonia Pires, director of Safety, Health, Environment and Sustainability for Europe, Middle East and Africa. "The starting point is different. Women should feel self-confident and not feel inhibited to negotiate equal salaries to their male colleagues for the same competencies," says Pires.

Univar believes the most important asset is its people - and the need to retain and develop them. The firm realizes that just because one is an expert in one's field, that such a person will not automatically be a good manager. So the company trains top performers to move to roles with more responsibility, with specific training programs, for example, in sales and leadership.

Univar's philosphy is that it is important to rate the individual worker and give feedback about what they are doing right and what they could do to improve their work. It's not so much recruiting the top talent as developing them.

"Many managers have those they rate highly and those who are not rated as well," says van Osch. "But they never tell them. The top ones don't get the recognition they need and deserve. We should give them more training, development and the chance for promotion. Those who are rated not as highly also need to be told. You deny people the chance to improve themselves otherwise."

To help with this, the company has a program called UReview, in which employees write their own appraisal. Managers and supervisors then rate and evaluate this appraisal and the results are shared with the individual.

Sheila Mowatt, the company's director of Operations EMEA, has spent her whole career of two decades at Univar. A qualified biochemist with an MBA, she didn't consciously opt for a male-dominated industry, but she has progressed and enjoyed promotion in Univar and is now another of the firm's four women directors.

"My advice to anyone - male or female - would be to be clear about what you want," she says. "Earlier in my career I was perhaps promoted more by managers approaching me than my being assertive and saying what I want. In the main, though, I have not come across any barriers. In fact, I have never been in the same job for more than two years. In my 20 years at Univar, I have never had a reason to leave."


  • Univar's EMEA Leadership Team of 12 contains four females
  • Almost half of staff in Iberia (49%), Italy (48%) and France (47%) are female
  • In senior roles, women outnumber men in some regions: in Iberia 66% of management roles are held by women, followed closely by the Nordics (57%)
  • In Italy and France three out of seven leadership team roles are held by women
  • In Belgium and the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) regions, only 37% of the workforce is female, yet three positions on their leadership teams in Belgium and two in are held by women
  • Of all the new recruits to Univar in 2009/10 a large percentage were women in Belgium (67%), in the UK (55%) and CEE region (50%)

Sonia Pires, who joined Univar in February as the director of Health, Safety, Environment and Sustainability for Europe, Middle East and Africa, has enjoyed a meteoric rise as a chemical engineer from her university days in her native Oporto, northern Portugal. But, she asserts, it is something she has worked and fought for, rather than having it handed to her on a plate.

"The challenge, rather than working in a male-dominated environment, is being hired for a higher management position by a male-dominated team," says Pires. "The old boys' network still exists in many companies. But by developing your own technical and soft skills, being self confident without being over confident, and being passionate about your work, you can overcome many obstacles."

Also key is maintaining a good network. Pires began her career in consultancy before moving to US-headquartered General Electric for eight years and then DSM Resins. Portugal is unusual because chemical engineering there, she says, is traditionally a female-dominated profession, while many men choose mechanical engineering. She has managed to benefit from such early encouragement to find a fulfilling and challenging career outside her country.

Women and men, while being equal, do have different working styles, she continues. "These differences in the way of thinking and working are the added value in having a diverse team. Conversely, some managers may view it negatively and see it as slowing down processes."

Sometimes, she says, when women are offered an opportunity they can hesitate, whereas men just go for it. "Women struggle to demand and fight for the things they want and deserve," she adds. "Men don't seem to have that problem."

As for facing hurdles that stifle her career progression, she says that wasn't the case for her. "However, in my first job I felt serious discrimination. I allowed myself to get caught up in that, and suffer until the day I thought: 'That's enough' and I resigned. Since that day, I will never accept a lack of respect. I accept hierarchy but there should be respect from both sides. Women need to stand up for themselves."

Pires is one of four women directors at Univar and says she really appreciates having an inspirational manager and working in a company that promotes diversity in every aspect. She finds her job fulfilling as she contributes towards a better working environment and Univar's sustainability campaign. "One of the very attractive aspects of my job is that I work at all levels as well as with suppliers and customers. There is also a good balance between office work, field work and traveling."

"My message to other women is: never let anyone take advantage of you. We are the ones who decide our lives. As a woman, you need strength of character and strength of purpose, without being aggressive. Be assertive and make sure you know what you want."

Sheila Mowatt, director of operations for EMEA at Univar Europe, has witnessed a shift in attitude to women employees in the two decades that she has worked in the industry and can now, as one of four women at leadership level at Univar Europe, actively encourage younger female colleagues as they progress up the career ladder.

Often the only female in a meeting, she would like to see more women coming up through the ranks: "I get a lot of personal satisfaction from being able to get on in an industry that is so male dominated. The advantage is that I can be a role model and a mentor for female colleagues."

As far as she is concerned, Univar's flexibility and professionalism have helped her make her choices and balance her work and home life as she brings up a young family while helping her career progress. Since she began working for Univar in 1989, policies have evolved and there are now more equal opportunities. Traveling up to four times a week, she also has a degree of flexibility that allows her occasionally to work from home, which, she says, is "a great position to be in as a woman."

Mowatt admits she didn't consciously pursue a male-dominated career. In the operations side, the workforce can be up to 90% male, but her qualifications in biochemistry and chemistry allied with an MBA certainly pointed to a top career in industry. She joined Univar's sales and marketing team as a graduate, which gave her plenty of exposure to the operations side of the business. Once she landed the job as an operations manager at a sister site, she never looked back and became the first female operations manager in the business.

Industry has come a long way since Mowatt began her career when a manager suggested to her that it was preferable for women not to wear trousers. Clearly policies have changed and there are more equal opportunities in the sector. Univar Europe itself is keen to seek and ensure diversity in its business and workforce and it offers plenty of flexibility to employees.

"As a female employee you were expected to wear a skirt," she says. Another time, when she was recruiting an operator, the candidate assumed she was the secretary and gave her his coat."

"As long as you are clear about what you want and willing to take charge of your career then there is no reason for you to come across any barriers. I may be missing an opportunity to network since there are admittedly more male-dominated opportunities such as rugby matches and other events I wouldn't choose to go to. But I have been in the business for a long time and have a good network of colleagues and we look out for each other. Their support is there: they know me through my credibility, trust, the knowledge that I will deliver and they know how I operate."

Detlef Prangenberg is Univar's vice president human resources for Europe, Middle East and Africa

More information on the ICIS recruitment campaign

By: Andy Brice
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