Conversations about Leadership with Women in the Chemical and Steel Industries


Full disclosure, when I walked into the Women in Industry luncheon at the SAP International Conference for Chemicals, Mining, and Metals in Madrid, Spain, the last thing I expected to experience was an overwhelming sense of uplifting camaraderie. Sitting amidst about 50 women and a handful of men, we talked about the hard truths and incredible opportunities for women in the chemical and steel industries.

The event was moderated by Monica Gassmann, a chapter lead for the Business Women’s Network (BWN) from SAP and sustainability program lead for SAP’s Discrete and Energy and Natural Resources Industries. On the panel were Marjan Olthof, head of Customer Services at Tata Steel, and Mari Pulkkinen, director of SAP and M&A Center of Excellence at LyondellBasell. Both women are helping lead innovations at their respective companies that are also SAP customers. During the illuminating conversation, they opened up about taking career risks, rising above gender-based stereotypes, and forging new paths to leadership in historically male-dominated industries.

Women’s Voices Can Head Off Stereotyping

Gartner research has found that initiatives like “promoting diversity in succession planning and holding celebratory events to highlight underrepresented groups” are highly effective at creating cultures of belonging. Indeed, the luncheon’s relaxed, friendly setting united all of us in a shared passion for diversity and inclusion. Rising above narrow stereotypes that can trap women was a common theme. Olthof talked about her learnings from working in sales, production, and engineering at Tata Steel, a multinational steel supplier and manufacturer based in India.

“With fewer women in the workplace, there can be role expectations that don’t necessarily align with who you are,” said Olthof. “My advice to women is to be yourself because what you have to offer is really valuable. Stay with your own personality while pursuing your ambitions.”

Pulkkinen shared lessons from her early career experiences. She currently works at LyondellBasell, a multinational chemical company headquartered in the Netherlands.

“Men have traditionally dominated leadership positions in the chemical industry but when women use their voice, they can continue to offer new perspectives,” said Pulkkinen. “During my first role on the supply chain team at a chemicals company, the first thing that my male colleagues wanted me to do was take notes. I told him that with my qualifications, I had been hired to do something else.”

Preventing Unconscious Bias

Everyone on the panel agreed that addressing unconscious bias starts with clear goals that increase opportunities for women. It’s just as important to change daily behaviors that define corporate culture.

“Addressing unconscious bias is something that I’m passionate about, and we have been accelerating our diversity and inclusion commitment,” said Pulkkinen. “For example, we have 47 nationalities in our Rotterdam office and want to make sure that people appreciate everyone’s unique background in a positive way. Small jokes based on stereotypes can affect how people are treated and perceived in the workplace.”

Building a Workforce Culture of Diversity

Tata Steel is also building a people culture that celebrates and encourages diversity and inclusion. Its five-pillar approach includes recruitment, sensitization, retention and development, infrastructure, and celebration.

“We’ve made diversity a No.1 priority by putting more women in senior roles,” said Olthof. “People are inherently biased towards their definition of normal and what they see in their environments and experiences. Unconscious bias also extends beyond gender to assumptions based on someone’s age. To make mindset changes, we need to be aware of these challenges and address them.”

Sponsors Help Women Progress

What became clear from the discussion was that women want to contribute their talents but need the space to be heard. Managers – women and men – have the clout to help. While recognizing the value of mentoring, Gassmann said that more women need sponsors who advocate for them.

“Mentors are great, but sponsors lift you up, connecting you with the people who can help advance your career,” she said. “These are men and women in management who provide you with visibility in meetings or informal settings to develop your career.”

Corporate women’s networks are growing. Olthof said that Tata Steel has a group of people who identify women candidates for promotion as vacancies occur. The BWN from SAP is an employee-driven group with over 90 global chapters that share professional insights, education, and experience to help women advance their careers. At LyondellBasell, mentors regularly help women with introductions and other support.

After 90 minutes of a fascinating dialogue, I walked out of this session at the conference fully energized. Yes, women are still underrepresented in leadership positions across some industries, including chemicals and steel. But as leaders at industry associations and companies like SAP, Tata Steel, and LyondellBasell speak up and act on diversity and inclusion commitments, there’s hope that more change will surely follow.

Follow me @smgaler.