CW 100: Women in chemicals is a story of absence

17:10 PM | September 15, 2014 | —Lyn Tattum

Curie: Inspired International Year of Chemistry.

CW wanted to use our centennial as an opportunity to highlight examples of women playing a role in shaping the chemical industry, one of the world’s most fundamental enablers of modern life and society.

Sadly, however, 100 years of chemical industry history does not provide much recognition in terms of female participation. Women have held key roles in our leading enterprises, particularly in recent years, but over the course of history, there has been remarkable imbalance in management, laboratory, and chemical engineering profiles for women.

The exceptions prove the rule, and it was Marie Curie who inspired the UN International Year of Chemistry in 2011, celebrating her achievements in radiation, X-ray diagnosis, and contributions to science, a century after she was awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Curie was the first woman to win the prize and is the only woman to have won Nobel prizes in two different fields—her other being the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, won jointly with her husband, Pierre Curie.

In the United Kingdom, Dorothy Hodgkin undertook X-ray crystal analysis of cholesterol derivatives in her laboratory at Oxford University, where she was not permitted to join the Chemistry Club and where her research group at one point included Margaret Thatcher. She made important contributions, but Hodgkin’s rank at Oxford was only as tutor until she was endowed with a professorial chair by the Royal Society. Then in 1964, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for determining the structures of biochemically important molecules, including penicillin and vitamin B12—an event announced by one British newspaper as “Nobel Prize for British Wife.”

Kullman: The DuPont CEO is a pioneer for female leadership.

Barriers to the scientific success of women can be identified through the centuries, according to a rare publication on the subject: Women in Chemistry, written by Marelene and Geoffrey Rayner-Canham and published 1998 by the American Chemical Society (ACS) and the Chemical Heritage Foundation. The book suggests that women have held numerous but mainly support roles in the history of chemistry that often go unrecognized, from the 18th-century laboratory of Lavoisier to the 20th-century chemical industry.

Crystallography, together with radioactivity and biochemistry, were some of the first fields in scientific discovery that became havens for women according to the Rayner-Canham book. One reason suggested is the positive mentoring of female researchers during the 1920s in the London and Cambridge laboratories of the X-ray crystallography pioneers, father and son William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg.

The onset of World War I enabled women chemists to enter industry. In the United Kingdom, May Sybil Leslie was the only woman chemist to receive recognition for her war work in nitric acid, only to lose her government position with the return of male chemists at the end of the war.

The 1914–18 war, sometimes called The Chemists’ War because the demand for poisonous gas, pharmaceuticals, and synthetic dyes required the synthesis of huge quantities of TNT and other explosives, drastically affected the health of female chemical workers who became known as canary girls because of the yellow impact on their skin.

Women were employed at Orange, NJ, in 1917 to paint a radium solution onto watch dials to enable night warfare. The habit of licking the paintbrush tip to provide a better point led to many women developing lip and mouth cancers.

Florence Wall, who worked at the factory, went on to be the first woman to receive the medal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists and was inducted into the Cosmetology Hall of Fame in 1965.

Kwolek: A creative and determined chemist who invented Kevlar.

Other impediments to women in the chemical industry included the “danger” of marriage and the fear that years and cost of training women chemists would be wasted. In 1939, W.S. Landis of American Cyanamid wrote about the unfortunate handicap for women, stating, “The only solution that industry has is to retain the woman employee in a more or less routine character of service until she is well across the peak of the age-marriage rate curve.”

At Hercules Powder in Delaware, women complained that they were not promoted at chemical companies regardless of what they had accomplished and that nothing would change until the management considered “the woman chemist as a chemist rather than as a woman.”

A posthumously more famous woman, Rosalind Franklin, died in 1958 without recognition for her contribution to X-ray crystallography and achievements in uncovering properties of coal and graphite, which had led to the science of carbon fibers, and her later work in identifying two forms of DNA that enabled the momentous discovery of the double helix. These examples, and more, are vividly documented in the Rayner-Canham book.

There are of course examples of lifetime success: Stephanie Kwolek, the inventor of Kevlar lightweight fiber used in bulletproof vests and body armor, died in June, aged 90. Kwolek was a chemist at DuPont when she invented the stronger-than-steel fiber in 1965. She was the only female employee of DuPont to be awarded the company’s Lavoisier Medal for outstanding technical achievement and was described by DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman as “a creative and determined chemist and a true pioneer for women in science.”

Few women have been top chemical CEOs

Jemison: Astronaut, chemical engineer, and Bayer champion for science literacy.

Kullman herself is a pioneer for women in leadership roles, becoming CEO and chair of DuPont in 2009 at 54. Kullman is the 19th executive to lead the company in more than 212 years of DuPont history—and the first woman to do so. She continues to be one of only two women to have led a global, top-100 chemical company. The other is Stephanie Burns, former CEO and chair of Dow Corning, who grew that company from a $2-billion/year business to a $6-billion/year business and was in 2010 the first woman to be awarded the International Palladium Medal by the Société de Chimie Industrielle.

In further examples of female leaders documented in the pages of CW, Fran Keith and Stacy Methvin each headed Shell Chemicals in the United States during the 1990s, and Lynne Lachenmyer at ExxonMobil Chemical had been until recently senior v.p/basic chemicals, intermediates, and synthetics and just moved to a new position as v.p./safety, security, health, and environment.

Other women in senior roles are acting as catalysts to nurture female talent. Heidi Alderman, senior v.p./petrochemicals at BASF, arranged this year the first ever women’s networking gathering at the annual American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers meeting at San Antonio. Carol Piccaro, president and CEO of chemicals distributor US Chemicals, implements a vision of personal health and well-being among a staff that includes a high number of women executives.

There are many more illustrations of exceptional women in the chemical business around the world. Over the past few generations, there is no doubt that women in the sciences have increased in number and great strides have been made to introduce young women to the possibility of science as a career. But there is ongoing concern at a lack of real progress.

According to a 2010 survey by Bayer, reported in CW, almost 40% of women and minority chemists and chemical engineers were at some point discouraged from pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). More than 1,000 female ACS members of African-American, Hispanic, and American Indian origin were polled about their childhood, academic, and workplace experiences. Almost two thirds say women and minority groups were underrepresented within their own company or institution staff.

The discouragement stems from the education system, Bayer says. “All children have an innate interest in science and the world around them. But for many children, that interest hits roadblocks along an academic system that is still not blind to gender or color,” says Mae Jemison, the first US African-American female astronaut as well as a chemical engineer and spokesperson for Making Science Makes Sense, a Bayer-sponsored program that advances science literacy across the United States.

In 2011, to mark the International Year of Chemistry, Theresa Kotanchek, v.p./sustainable technologies and innovation sourcing at Dow Chemical, hosted an event to connect recognized female leaders in science via a unique discussion, “The Future of Women in Chemistry and Science.” The virtual conference brought together 60 speakers to provide 60 perspectives on encouraging women in science in 60 minutes and was part of a series called The Future We Create to foster executive leadership and mentorship. “Through mentoring and education, we can encourage more women to enter STEM fields and to play a role in innovating solutions to the world’s greatest challenges. I look forward to encouraging this next generation of women scientists and to referring to these young women as my colleagues,” Kotanchek says.

So do we!

The Chemical Heritage Foundation has documented further recent examples of women in chemicals through the Oral Histories series: