Closing Chemical Engineering's Leadership Gender Gap

I’m always surprised when I attend a chemical industry event and the audience is predominantly male, or when I’m looking for CEOs to interview for CEP’s Leadership Q&A column and find mostly men leading the top chemical companies. It turns out I shouldn’t be surprised. According to results of a study just released by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co., women remain underrepresented in the corporate pipeline. At every step along the way to the C-suite, the representation of women declines. And, it’s not because of attrition. Men and women are leaving organizations at about the same rate.

Gender gap across industries

The study, Women in the Workplace 2016, analyzed data and survey responses from 132 U.S. companies employing 4.6 million people, as well as information gleaned from surveys completed by 34,000 employees.

The picture looks like this: men and women enter the organization at roughly a 50-50 split. As you move through the corporate pipeline, this split changes, with 63% men and 37% women at the manager level; the percentage of women continues to decline to 33% at the senior management level, 29% at the vice-president level, all the way down to 19% for the C-suite.

Part of the reason for this gender disparity, the study concludes, could be that women face more barriers to advancement than men. Women have less access to the people and opportunities needed for career advancement. For example, although men and women view mentoring by senior leaders as essential for success, women report fewer substantive interactions with executives than men.

One positive result: women are pushing back. They are negotiating and asking for promotions.

The bad news: women who negotiate are being penalized for it.

Call out bias to get beyond it 

In a Wall Street Journal article, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook Inc., and the founder of LeanIn.Org, shares the story of a freelance film director walking into a negotiation. Instead of commencing her pitch for the project, she began by saying: “I just want to say up front that I’m going to negotiate, and the research shows that you’re going to like me less when I do.” Commenting on this example, Sandberg writes, “When women ask for what they deserve, they often face social pushback — and are viewed as ‘bossy’ or ‘aggressive’ simply for asking. So she came up with a solution: Call out the bias before it could surface. It worked.”

The challenge, Sandberg writes, is to break the stereotypes that cause people to dislike women who ask for what they want. Women who negotiate are 67% more likely than women who stay quiet to receive feedback that their personal style is intimidating, too aggressive, or bossy.

So how do we fix the problem? Results of the Women in the Workplace 2016 study indicate that company commitment to gender diversity is at an all-time high. However, these companies don’t seem to consistently put this commitment into action. The study has a remedy for that — four steps companies can take to advance their efforts. These are: Make a compelling case for gender diversity; ensure that hiring, promotions, and reviews are fair; invest in more employee training; focus on accountability and results.

“And all of us can encourage women to keep negotiating — until the day that it’s seen as perfectly normal, and even expected, for women to ask for more,” Sandberg writes. “More women are leaning in — and we’ll all go farther when the workplace stops pushing back.”