Thought
Leadership

From ‘Only One’ to Strength in Numbers

September 6, 2019
Women on boards - article

This morning I happened to notice a photo of a female Senior Vice President in the chemical industry newsfeed on social media to announce the kick-off of the EU Commission’s new Circular Plastics Alliance effort. It was not the topic, albeit interesting, that grabbed my attention, but the photo itself. Thirty or so proud members smiling at the camera, all but three of them men. 

A sinking feeling came over me as I started to reflect on my own time in the chemical industry, a sector I love and still follow closely through my work at Borderless Executive Search. I left Dow Chemical 18 years ago to set up my own company. One of the reasons that contributed to this decision was that I was often the only female in the room. 

Managing a chemicals portfolio for the company in Europe, I was accustomed to being the only woman. Whether this was at trade association meetings, conferences or internal meetings, the picture was always the same. Don’t get me wrong; there were some benefits of being the only woman. If you are good at your job, you do stand out and create exposure for yourself. But most of the time it meant putting in a lot of extra effort to be seen to be good at your job and to make sure your voice and ideas were heard. 

Why are we still talking about the ‘only ones’? 

A recent article published by McKinsey with the apt title, “One is the loneliest number,” discusses the results of McKinsey’s latest Women in the Workplace report, where 45 percent of women working in sectors such as technology and engineering said that they were often the only person of their gender in the room. The study findings for North America show that, although the proportion of women joining companies is rising steadily, female representation in the C-suite is stuck at 20%. Moreover, when women find themselves in a group of men, they are more prone to having their opinions questioned. 

So, what is the impact of being the ‘only ones’ for professional women? Does this prevent us from succeeding? No, I believe many still do. But it does lead to women questioning whether to stay or leave their careers at some point. 

Years ago, when I was in the same position, I did not see enough female role-models in the company. An exit interview with the soon-to-be-appointed CEO at that time, where I was told that as a young mother, I could not have it all, gave me the conviction that my decision to leave the company and set up my own business was the right one. 

Time for change 

It is high time that things change. The chemical industry has a real opportunity to make sure that female talent is attracted and promoted. At a time when there is a real battle for talent, the chemical industry is not really seen as the most fascinating choice by young graduates. But what if it was an industry that really appealed to female talent? 

We need to help build that critical mass of female talent, appoint female leadership beyond the support functions, and recognize that one is not enough. It is time to review how promotions and hiring decisions are made in your organization. Transition times like these present opportunities – it is time to seize them. 

Are women under-represented in your organization? What do you think should be done? 

By Els De Cremer


 

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