The Obstacles Impeding Greater Advancement for Women Chemists in Industry

Valerie Kuck, Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies, tells us how these road blocks instigated her retirement
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What is your forecast for the next generation of chemists working in industry? How will their careers differ from the one you started in the 60s at Bell Labs?

The forecast for the next generation of industrial chemists is to expect a career that can change at any time.  Companies can change their focus quickly, and the people and skills needed for new areas can also change quickly.  Therefore, be flexible. Be known as someone who can get a job done. Be prepared for working at another job/company. It is crucial now more than ever to be connected with others. You need to have a large network that knows your skill base and set of skills.

It is a much different climate compared to when I worked at Bell Labs.  Scientists felt more secure and anticipated long careers with big companies.  Today it is a different world we work in, and scientists should anticipate that they will not be with one company for their career.  It is a good idea to know what is going on in terms of job opportunities. This is the unique thing that the ACS can offer chemists/chemical engineers. Let others know your strengths and capabilities, as you never know when you will need their help in finding another position.

How did your parents influence your leadership style?

Both of my parents made the extra effort to step out of the mold. During World War II, my mother, who had no technical training, joined the war effort and learned how to read X-rays to evaluate the strength of the weld joints on airplane wings. She then went on to work in a large department store and rose to become a floor manager. This was at a time when very few mothers worked out of the house. She was not afraid of challenges and expected me to be the same.

My father thought that it was extremely important that I acquire the knowledge and skills to always be able to support myself. Unlike many of the other girls at that time, he expected me to have a career and succeed! He was a leader in the community and believed that individuals had the responsibility to make it better for the next generation. Fortunately, both of my parents lived long enough to see that the examples they set for me were being followed.

Previous women featured in What I Learned, such as Susan Butts and Carolyn Ribes, commented to one degree or another on the slow pace of progress relating to women in industry. Do you agree? And if you do, what are the primary obstacles hindering more rapid progress?  

I agree that women have not risen rapidly in industry. I think it is important for women to learn immediately what the company/manager values, to determine ways for uniquely separating themselves from others, demonstrate a willingness to take on new responsibilities/challenges, to identify several mentors and investigate future efforts you should be considering, to determine those individuals with whom they could collaborate with, to be an attentive listener in meetings and offer thoughtful comments or suggestions, to always complete jobs on time and at a high standard, and to make certain that they are given credit for their efforts and that others are also given credit for their accomplishments.

I think that women have been taught to be quiet, to be slow in taking credit for their accomplishments and excellent ideas, and not to seek out people who might become their champions/mentors. Unfortunately, this has not worked in their favor.

In a July 2019 Boss Talk appearance, former Dow CEO Andrew Liveris suggested (among other things) that in order improve the working conditions of early career women in the chemical industry, organizations should “… short circuit the layers by having listening sessions with your early career women. Senior levels “get it”... it’s the middle of organizations that need to be fixed to rid yourselves of this unconscious or conscious bias.” What is your take on this analysis/recommendation from Andrew Liveris?

I am not so convinced that the Senior Levels get it. If they did, why haven’t they carved out better pathways for women to advance at their company? Have they verified that women are being given the same opportunities and support as men? Have women proportionately participated in all the existing efforts to develop personnel? Are the same criteria being used in evaluating all candidates? Is the evaluation based on the quality and impact of those accomplishments or is “potential” of the candidates and stereotyping being used in the selection process? Are women excluded from certain opportunities/responsibilities?

Many studies have shown that bias exists and until facts and not opinions or predictions are used in evaluating people, women will continue to be excluded from reaching high level positions in industry.

You serve as an ACS Career Consultant. What is your top advice for recent graduates looking for a career in the chemical industry?

Take the time to review your past and identify those actions when you were particularly proud of your accomplishment. Review your list of those particularly satisfying activities and determine the reasons that made those events so personally satisfying. This should give you a good idea of your personal motivators. Couple that knowledge with your unique set of skills and knowledge, then identify jobs that would be the best fit. You don’t want just any job but one where you will excel, and importantly, find rewarding.

The New York Times, in a February 2012 opinion piece by Jon Gertner, published the following about Bell Labs: “For a long stretch of the 20th century, it was the most innovative scientific organization in the world.” Very high praise. You worked there. Does the hype align with your memories of Bell Labs? What was it like for you?

It was a terrific place to work. I loved it that researchers had such broad interests and were always willing to think deeply about a new technical problem. People were always pushing back the boundaries and asking probing questions. Being free to pursue the “why” of things is a tremendous opportunity to make new findings.

You have won many major awards, far too many to list here. Which one means the most to you, and why?

This is kind of asking me, “Which is my favorite child?” I look at the awards as tangible reminders of my involvement in the Society. I saw a need for change, and I tried to respond to that need. As I attended various committee meetings and listened intently to the issues that were being discussed, I kept asking myself “Why is the Society doing it that way?” “Isn’t there a better way?” And, “What would be gained by changing?” I have been blessed to work with so many people who shared my vision.

Many readers of this newsletter likely don’t understand your pivotal role in establishing ACS Sci-Mix, which has been occurring at ACS National Meetings for a long time.  What is Sci-Mix, how did it come about, and what would make it more successful?

During a weekend retreat that I had called as Chair of the Committee on Meetings Expositions, I was a member of a small group charged with identifying ways for improving the non-technical oral presentation events held during the national meetings.

For several years, I had noticed that in the after-dinner hours, a number of younger chemists could usually be found just hanging around the hotel lobbies. I had also noticed that the current mixer was drawing smaller numbers of people, especially few young attendees.

I proposed having a large poster session that would give, especially the younger scientists, an opportunity, in a non-threatening way, to meet and talk with researchers working in areas of mutual interest. I envisioned that sharing the same technical interest would facilitate networking among the attendees and they would find a home in the ACS. In terms of improving Sci-Mix, I think it would be helpful if more of the students would be encouraged to attend it and expand their network.

Who has gotten the better of the deal with respect to your decades-long volunteer engagement with the Society? The ACS or you? 

I think we both gained. I think the Society is better off for my addressing such things as, greater inclusion of women, minorities, and industrial members in governance, the significant rise in the number of female recipients receiving national awards, identification of ways to give greater support and training to committee chairs, increasing the support given to the unemployed, the availability to present significant late-breaking research developments at national meetings, making safe laboratory procedures readily available for students, and the improved career guidance given to graduate students and post-docs.

I gained immensely from meeting and working with numerous terrific individuals. It has been extremely rewarding to know that I have made a positive difference. I have been blessed with many wonderful memories.

You spent decades in New Jersey, and now live in San Diego. What do you miss about the East Coast? And what do you love most about California?

I miss all my friends that I made out there, especially all the wonderful individuals that are active in the North Jersey Section. It was a great Section to work in. I loved the Spring and the Fall seasons with all the wonderful foliage. I do not miss the snow, sleet, and resulting power outages. The weather in California is certainly an improvement. 

Valerie Kuck, Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies, retired.
Valerie Kuck, Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies, retired.

Valerie Kuck was at Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies for thirty-four years where she worked mostly on coatings. During that time, she was very active in the Society and was appointed or elected to chair five National Committees. She served three, three-year terms on the ACS Board of Directors, where she chaired the Committee on Grants and Awards. Based on her efforts, she has received three national ACS Awards and was named a Fellow in 2016.

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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