Challenges Specific to Female Employees in the Chemical Industry

Cabot Corporation’s Patricia Hubbard explains why and how prejudice of any kind is detrimental to the success of an organization
Industry Matters Newsletter
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Key Takeaways:

  1. Patricia Hubbard speaks to Cabot’s position on primary macro trends
  2. Hubbard shares the challenges of managing 10 diverse portfolios of products 
  3. How Cabot maintains a culture of collaboration with both their scientists and clients

In the Cabot Corporation press release announcing your appointment as SVP and CTO, you were quoted as saying, “I see great opportunity for Cabot to bring the power of materials innovation to address some of the most pressing global macro trends.” Can you elaborate on the primary macro trends Cabot hopes to address?

There are a few important macro trends where Cabot’s materials have a significant role to play, but probably the two most prominent are mobility and sustainability.  As we see global miles driven continuing to rise, and with these trends top of mind, we will need longer-lasting tires that help reduce fuel consumption. Carbon black is obviously a key reinforcing agent in the production of tires, and Cabot has proprietary elastomer composite material technology that provides breakthrough performance in wear and rolling resistance.

In addition, these trends are apparent in the growth of electric vehicles. Cabot’s conductive carbon additives play an important role in both advanced lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries to improve the long-range conductivity that increases battery capacity. This has been a very fast-growing area for us, and one where we see tremendous opportunity to expand our portfolio. 

These trends also drive automotive light weighting and vehicle sensing. These often require conductive carbon additives to manage local charge build-up or provide electromagnetic (EMI) shielding of sensitive electronic components. We have invested in carbon nanostructures to provide best-in-class EMI shielding performance.

According to a 2018 article in Harvard Business Review, “The average lifespan of a U.S. S&P 500 company has fallen by 80% in the last 80 years (from 67 to 15 years).” While Cabot Corporation is not quite an S&P 500 company, nor is it small by any means with 4,500 employees. At over 135 years old, what are the keys to extending this impressive run into the future?

Ensuring continual, advantaged growth for the long term is a key focus area for the Company. We strongly support our customers in our core businesses, but also acknowledge trends that might impact our businesses so that we can confront them head on. At the same time, we have strengthened our applications development capabilities to help identify new areas for growth.

This is the real challenge for Cabot and any company over the long term: How to strike the right balance between keeping a strong core while also building from positions of strength to progress into new areas. It’s hard to get right, but vitally important.

The Cabot website lists 10 company products with applications in 16 areas, ranging from adhesives and sealants to electronics and energy storage to pharmaceuticals and personal care. As Cabot’s CTO, what are some of the primary challenges in managing such a diverse portfolio of products?

One of the biggest challenges for any CTO is connecting the corporate strategy to an R&D strategy, including how to balance resources to meet both short-term and long-term needs. As the number of application areas and products increases, we need to make choices about where to invest resources.

This gets compounded within a global company, where the nuances between application needs in one region versus another are important. In that case, one must consider whether to distribute resources across all regions to ensure the right product is developed, or whether it can be effectively managed for the worldwide market from one region.

What kind of culture are you trying to foster with your scientists at Cabot?

Cabot has a group of tremendously talented scientists who are already very collaborative, which is a great culture to walk into. We are strengthening our external focus and broadening our collaboration with customers and other innovation partners. This allows us to better identify and understand trends in the marketplace and enables us to respond to them more quickly. We’re finding that the innovation with partners is opening our minds to new ideas we hadn’t considered before.

At the same time, we are working toward a stronger bias for action. Cabot has a strong fundamental understanding of the materials that we make and develop, and as we work to strengthen our application innovation capability, we need to balance our theoretical understanding with a pragmatic approach to experimentation and use of data analytics to answer technical problems.

What non-technical skills should a Cabot chemist possess in order to achieve success? Do your chemists tend to arrive at Cabot with these requisite non-technical skills, or does your company supplement them through internal or external training?

There are two non-technical skills that are extremely valuable for any chemist working at Cabot or in the industry. The first is critical thinking, and the second is good communication. As chemists progress in their careers, their roles often require that they are able to influence both technical and non-technical audiences from inside and outside of their organizations and for me, critical thinking and good communication have been key to building influence.

These “softer skills” come naturally to some, but all employees can continue to improve them over their careers. At Cabot, we are dedicated to creating a learning culture and provide a variety of training opportunities for employees at various levels in their careers. In addition, what I find often more important is the individualized coaching many receive from our own internal leaders, and leadership development specialists, who have expertise working with technical professionals.

What challenges do women chemists encounter in the workplace that men largely don’t experience? What can the chemical industry do to make the workplace more welcoming and rewarding for women?

I think that the unique challenges that women chemists encounter have less to do with the work itself and more to do with the work environment and balancing work with the needs or wants in one’s personal life.

There are a couple of specific stories from my career that come to mind:

I was in a global R&D leadership role when my sons were born and I was feeling guilty about not spending enough time with them. My male colleague wanted to have a global call regularly at 8 p.m., and I asked if it could be adjusted to 9 p.m. so that I could give my kids a bath first and get on the call when they went to bed. That request was not only denied, but I felt it branded me as not being focused on my career.

Later in my career, I was offsite at a strategy session, which finished at lunchtime on a Friday.  Because it was a beautiful Summer day in Cleveland, that was followed by a round of golf – a round to which I wasn’t invited. My boss invited my male colleagues but didn’t invite me.

These examples weren’t intentional acts of discrimination or even exclusion, but each one made me wonder if I belonged. Thankfully, I have been fortunate to work for managers (who all happen to be men) who have supported my choices, and the positive interactions far outweighed these few instances that made me wonder if I was on the right road.

Prejudice of any kind is detrimental to the success of any organization. As leaders, we must work to acknowledge and prevent unconscious bias, and be mindful of the impact of our words and actions. In doing so, we can build an inclusive environment where everyone feels a sense of belonging. We need to be careful not to assume, but always to ask.  We shouldn’t assume that the new mother – or new father – doesn’t want to travel. Nor should we assume that because someone doesn’t have children that they can have a call at any time of day or night. These challenges aren’t specific to women, and much of the efforts around diversity and inclusion have opened up conversations about balance in a healthy way.

Why aren’t more women occupying senior leadership positions in the chemical industry (such as the one you hold)?

That’s a really difficult question, and there are several different hypotheses. Personally, I believe it is most likely due to three factors – industry, work environment, and personal choice. We know that women have been graduating with technical degrees at the same rate as men for a long time. As they graduate, many women self-select into other industries such as healthcare, pharma and biotech.

That has led to a persistently male-dominated work environment in many chemical companies, which makes it harder to recruit women into, and even more difficult to retain women in. Women want to work where they believe they’ll be welcomed, heard and promoted, and if they don’t see other women leaders in the workplace, they’re less likely to stay.

Finally, leadership is a choice, and it’s not usually the easiest one for anyone. It’s demanding of time, and many women either don’t have, or don’t believe they have, the flexibility to manage the demands of the job and the demands in their personal lives, whatever those might be. 

With all of that said, the chemical industry can’t afford to miss out on half of the trained workforce, and so we have to be diligent in engaging young graduates early and ensuring they have the support and encouragement to thrive in whatever roles they aspire to.

How did your parents influence your leadership style?

My parents were firm believers in the power of a good education, and they also taught me to work hard, treat people well, and put faith and family first. They instilled in me a belief that with those traits and a solid education, I could be anything I wanted to be.  I believe that motivation is very personal, and that people work hard when the work matches their strengths and aspirations and they have the skills and tools they need to succeed.

You are a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, and have been for many years. In what areas of work has that training provided you with the greatest benefit? What is the profile of those employed in the chemical industry who would most benefit from that training?

Lean Six Sigma (LSS) grounded me in a methodical approach to problem-solving.  LSS drives you to clearer thinking about what problem you’re trying to solve and requires a data-driven approach to decision making. 

Early in my career, the greatest benefit of LSS came in my development projects, where getting alignment on a measurable goal led to better identification of critical factors and experimental designs. Once I moved into management roles, I found that the structure of the LSS approach helped with clear communication cross-functionally and has been particularly helpful as I’ve moved into R&D leadership roles where my technical expertise was not as strong. It doesn’t replace scientific fundamentals but provides a framework for meaningful dialogues and has allowed me to quickly understand what areas were strong and where a team needed support.

You spent several years in Ohio pursuing your undergraduate degree (Case Western Reserve University) and your Ph.D. (University of Akron). After spending about 1.5 years now with Cabot in Boston, do you have any observations to share with us about the driving habits of those in Ohio vs. Massachusetts?

Traffic is obviously much worse in Boston than in Cleveland, but I’m pleasantly surprised that most drivers in Boston are reasonable, and they let you change lanes in heavy traffic if you signal. Maybe that was because they saw my Ohio license plates…

Patricia Hubbard, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Cabot
Patricia Hubbard, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Cabot

Patricia Hubbard joined Cabot in 2018 as senior vice president and chief technology officer. Prior to joining Cabot, Patricia worked for Avery Dennison as vice president of R&D for the Label and Graphic Materials division in North America. Prior to Avery Dennison, she worked for PolyOne Corporation and General Electric. Throughout her career, she has garnered extensive knowledge of materials science and formulated solutions that have driven new product development and technology innovation. Patricia is a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, and earned her Ph.D. in polymer science from the University of Akron and a BS in Chemistry from Case Western Reserve University.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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