What female leaders in chemicals have to say about breaking barriers

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On March 8, in honor of International Women’s Day, BASF and Univar Solutions brought together influential female leaders in the chemical industry to discuss their experiences, share their professional stories and dive into some of the challenges women still face in the workplace.

The “Breaking Barriers: Exceptional Women in Chemicals” panel, moderated by Heleina Superior, Vice President of Corporate Accounts at Univar Solutions, brought together:

  • Erika Peterman, former Senior Vice President of Chemical Intermediates at BASF.
  • Alisha Bellezza, President of Thermal & Specialized Solutions for The Chemours Company.
  • Amy Ericson, Senior Vice President of Protective and Marine Coatings at PPG.
  • Rebecca Liebert, President and CEO of The Lubrizol Corporation.
  • Noelle Perkins, Senior Vice President, General Counsel, Chief Risk Office & Secretary at Univar Solutions.

Finding your way in a male-dominated industry

All from different backgrounds, and with strong examples of the visible and cognitive diversity that distinguishes their work, these women’s pathways to leadership are compellingly different: some studied finance, others engineering, another law, and yet they all found their way into the dynamic chemicals industry. 

Navigating the corporate world

Getting noticed and being considered for management and executive roles is one of the hardest things for everyone to achieve in their careers. In order to succeed, it’s vital to recognize the different environments, how each one of them works, and how to play in them. As Peterman reflects, “everybody can play. It’s how you play that makes the difference.

However, being the only woman or minority in the room has its benefits. 

"If you’re the only female in a male-dominated business area, you will stand out. Take advantage of it. They will always remember you. You have to take the good with the bad,” Liebert recommends.

The ability to adapt to different situations is also a fundamental trait for dealing with the challenges of advancing female leadership while remaining true to one’s core skills and leadership styles. It’s about choosing the right approaches to be effective in a particular situation. 

We’ve got the numbers, we’ve got the power, we’ve got a voice. We need to figure out how to bring that together, leverage it and help our businesses perform better. If we do that, we will be noticed and effective.

Amy Ericson

Senior Vice President of Global Packaging Coatings, PPG Industries.

Navigating business politics can be challenging but these situations happen frequently. Ericson recommends leaning into people in your life who have been in similar situations, to understand what they learned from their experiences, and how they navigate challenges. Feed from it and build your own path. But most of all, take chances, be vulnerable and embrace the uncertainty that comes from trying something new.

Networking, the belle of the ball

Networking is an essential part of being a successful professional. As Bellezza, explains, “when you’re early in your career, it’s easier to get involved in outside things and develop through social and purposeful causes and develop a network. Making sure you integrate it into your life and sustain this focus is a skill that can serve and pay dividends as you advance into the future.”

The panel agrees that developing your network early is key, and contrary to popular opinion, people in top positions enjoy helping other professionals and dedicating time to mentoring others. They do not view this as an imposition, they see it as valued career development and paying it forward. But in order to have a successful network, you need to put in the time.

How companies can help close the gender gap

The panel members believe that organizations can definitely take steps to build a more diverse workforce. Having programs in place to make roles more accessible, interesting, and welcoming to people from different backgrounds is a key step. This takes work and time, but it can also be very effective in closing gaps, explains Belezza, who currently has an executive team where female representation is over 50%.

Making sure that, at the plant level, women have the necessary skills and tools to successfully do their jobs is fundamental, and so is letting them know what is available to them. Having a diverse pool of candidates for every job opening, while also conducting regular talent assessments and identifying emerging top talent, is also very important and a goal and practice of all the companies participating on the panel.

Executives also have a responsibility to set up structures that can provide management opportunities for women and members of under-represented minority communities and learning opportunities to develop their soft and hard skills. If these opportunities and programs don’t exist, as Ericson explains, “we may end up selecting that person and seeing them fail; that’s not good for anybody.”

As for male allies, she recommends challenging them to identify the female colleagues in their team that have needed talents and actively sponsor them. Even if the male allies don’t experience the consequences of the gender gap firsthand, they can develop a strong sense of empathy and action to deliver shared success.

To be a female in Corporate America leadership is a little bit like being a starving actor or actress. You have to really want it. There is a degree of grit that is required to keep pushing on and to make it.

Noelle Perkins

Senior Vice President, General Counsel, Chief Risk Office & Secretary, Univar Solutions.

For the panel, it is clear that stereotypes exist and will not go away any time soon. However, this does not mean that you need to conform to them. You can prove them wrong through your actions and help tear them down. As Peterman says, “don’t be afraid to call a horse a horse, and a duck a duck. People will respect you more for being able to have those candid conversations.”

While all of the panelists have received different pieces of advice throughout their careers, the ones that resonate most are: be confident, know yourself, be prepared and communicate what you want. No one will figure out your path for you, you need to make your own way.


Watch a short video with some of the highlights from the event:

Published on June 20, 2023, by Mariana Licio.

For media inquiries or to repurpose this article, please contact Lisa Brown.