INDUSTRY INSIGHTThought Leadership

The role of workforce diversity in the chemical industry

The share of women in the total workforce at GPCA member companies has doubled over the last 10 years, from 3% in 2010 to 6% in 2019. Yet on a global level, the regional industry is falling drastically behind. What is the state of gender diversity at chemical companies today and how can regional industry players accelerate their progress in this area?  

The chemical industry, today, increasingly recognizes that the quality of female leadership available within organizations will make a competitive difference in the way organizations adapt to new ways of working. Therefore, having top management leadership on Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) is indispensable for companies’ future success. Leaders need to understand that inclusion of diverse talent brings better performance and greater innovation.

Gender diversity is making steady progress in the global chemical industry. The companies that have a significant share of female leaders outperform their peers, according to research conducted by McKinsey & Co[1]. Companies should consider this insight given that the industry has struggled to attract, retain and promote women. Addressing this problem is important: the sector faces an aging workforce as well as demand for new ideas and skills.

Hiring a more diverse workforce is not a sure-fire way to raise profits. But the consulting firm has a hypothesis about why there is a correlation between workforce diversity and a company’s bottom line. “More diverse companies are better able to win top talent, and improve their customer orientation, employee satisfaction, and decision making”, leading to a virtuous cycle of increasing returns, it says. [2]

Once women are employed within the industry, establishing an inclusive culture, with support from the top, is essential. Management must ensure that diversity goals are met, and internal groups and programs that will help women feel included are created and supported.

Appointing female professionals to leadership roles will lead to greater gender diversity both because organizations with women leaders hire more women, and because women may be attracted to companies where they can see that other women have already achieved success.

A lot of progress has been seen in recent years. However, the recently released WEF Future of Jobs report showed that the expansion of gender parity is not on the list of the most important trends driving industry growth in the chemical industry. Despite that, there are already many successful women leaders in the chemical industry. Nascent steps have been taken, but chemicals continue to lag behind many other industries. It is time to see equality as a business imperative – matching genuine actions with good intentions.

Nationalization drive in the GCC chemical industry

As gender diversity is gaining pace across the GCC countries, chemical companies are increasingly recognizing the need for increased participation of women in the industry. Since 2010, the number of female professionals employed in different roles by GPCA member companies has increased significantly. In many cases, they were the first women to fill these roles. This is reflected in figures provided by GPCA member companies, which show that women held 6% of the total workforce in 2019 up from 3% since 2010.

Nevertheless, significant differences exist between different GCC countries. The UAE has the highest gender diversity in the chemical industry where 14% of the workforce are women, leaving a large room for improvement for other GCC countries, especially in Saudi Arabia where women represent only 4% of the workforce, the lowest number in the region.

The GCC chemical industry lags behind in female workforce participation, as the percentage share of women working in the chemical industry has only a 2% share in total female employment in all sectors in the GCC. Despite signs of progress, the rate at which female participation in the GCC chemical industry is progressing is still slow. Across all GCC countries, a mere 2-3% improvement in gender diversity has been registered since 2010.

Figure 1: Women’s participation in the GCC chemical industry (share in total employment)
Source: Source: GPCA Questionnaire, ILO, 2020
Note: GPCA member companies only
Figure 2: Women’s participation in the GCC chemical industry in comparison with North America (share in total employment) (2019)
Source: GPCA Questionnaire, GPCA research, American Chemistry Council, 2020

The GCC chemical industry also lags behind when compared to other regions across the world, with the region holding only a 6% share of women’s participation, when compared to North America where female professionals have a 27% share in total chemical industry employment. A number of factors contribute to the Arabian Gulf region falling behind other parts of the world in terms of gender parity. Some of these factors are related to specific cultural norms and others are linked to inclusivity gaps at universities’ science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. The modest share of women in the regional industry is attributed to the fact that universities and vocational institutes were not admitting women to STEM (engineering) disciplines, a practice that has become outdated today, with the region boasting one of the highest number of female engineering graduates globally. According to UNESCO[1], 34-57% of STEM graduates in Arab countries are women – a figure much higher[2] than that seen in universities across the US or Europe.

Overall regional figures indicate that there is certainly room for improvement, with the industry falling within the “steady”[1] category on the D&I front according to research conducted by GPCA and Heidrick and Struggles. If they are to lead by example, regional chemical companies would need to work on fostering diversity and putting it to work through inclusion. Areas for improvement include the representation and attraction of diverse talent at chemical firms today. Acting on these key drivers to maintain and accelerate D&I will be key moving forward for regional chemical companies, especially when it comes to increased female participation.

Companies with significant critical mass such as Saudi Aramco have the highest share of women in their workforce, with a number of leading female professionals working as chief engineers on oil rigs, an environment that was traditionally considered harsh and ill-equipped for women working in the industry. The GCC chemical industry is taking the necessary steps needed to narrow the gender gap, a strategy that is aligned with the GCC national visions to increase female participation in the labor force. Shining examples among GPCA member companies are Maha Mulla Hussain, Chairman and Managing Director of Kuwait’s Petrochemical Industries Company (PIC, 2007 – 2013) and Muna Al-Muhairi, CEO, Fertil (Abu Dhabi, UAE), who sits on the GPCA Board of Directors.

Narrowing the gap – international standpoint

Gender diversity is making steady progress in the chemical industry with over 35% of women currently working in chemistry jobs, and the number continues to increase[2]. In addition, in many countries around the world, improved diversity is supported through government policies, corporate initiatives and a growing number of groups and professional networks dedicated to helping women advance their careers in chemical companies.

Examples of national laws and grassroot campaigns enforced globally to encourage gender parity in the chemical industry and accelerate the rate at which companies increase women’s participation in the workforce:

  • The French government passed major gender-equality law in 2014 that promotes gender parity in the workplace[1]
  • A new UK law requires that companies publish their gender pay gap[2]
  • German companies are mandated to reach a target of 30% or more women representatives on their boards[3]
  • 2020Women on Board – a national campaign, was launched in the US, to increase the percentage of women on US company boards to 20 percentage or greater by 2020[4]
  • The Center for Economic Development has developed the Every Other One initiative to encourage US companies to appoint a woman to every other board seat that opens up[5]

Many chemical companies are slowly but surely narrowing the gender gap between women and men in leadership roles, as a 2017 survey by C&EN of women in the chemical industry shows women are gaining momentum in boardroom representations over the past years.

From an international standpoint, the survey conducted in 2017 by C&EN shows that women hold a record of 18.6% of seats on the board of directors at 42 US companies with major chemical businesses included, up from 17.1% in the previous year. However, of those 386 people serving as executive officers at the 42 companies, 13.7% are women, signaling a decline from 14.3% in the previous year.

Further, in 2017, women saw an increase in business leadership roles at chemical companies holding a 32% of female executive representation that are holding business responsibility roles, up from 28% in 2015 and 2016. This is a good indicator that the chemical industry is slowly but surely narrowing the gender gap[6].

Moving forward, concrete efforts and steps have been made to increase the number of women in leadership roles and improve gender diversity. This will make it easier for women to see themselves working in the industry to attract female talent. The GCC region is also actively seeking female participation in all sectors, including the chemical industry, to align with their national vision strategies.

Figure 3: Steps that companies can consider to narrow the gender gap
Source: KMPG

Steps to narrow the talent and gender gap

Over the past few years, more women have been promoted to top management roles and company board positions. Successful women have been rewarded for their achievements. However, continued progress can be supported by following these four steps: 1) recognize the business case for gender diversity, 2) hire women who can hire women, 3) support transparency, and 4) continue to evolve.

Each company needs to understand the specific reasons for fall-offs in female participation and then create specific solutions to address them.

Moving forward

To empower more women to reach the highest ranks, we must focus on three key areas: socializing leadership early in life, modelling leadership and building confidence through role models and networking and providing or enhancing corporate development.

The benefits of increased female participation are clear. Chemical companies need to continue driving female participation in their workforce to accelerate business performance and drive their firms forward. Failing to make headway on gender diversity may place chemical players at a disadvantage, and result in a failure to better position themselves for growth and renewed success.

[1] How women can help fill the oil and gas industry’s talent gap, McKinsey & Company, Last accessed: 8 March, Link

[2] How women can help fill the oil and gas industry’s talent gap, McKinsey & Company, Last accessed 8 March, Link

[3] Unesco, Last accessed 8 March, Link

[4] World Economic Forum, Last accessed 8 March, Link

[5] Fostering inclusion and diversity in the Arabian Gulf chemical industry, 9 August 2020, Link

[6] Closing the Gender Gap in STEM Fields, Girls in Tech, 17 March 2017, Link

[7] France passes sweeping gender equality law, Reuters, 6 August 2014, Link

[8] Gender pay gap law could have significant impact, say experts, The Guardian, 6 April 2017, Link

[9] Act on Equal Participation of Women and Men in Executive Positions in the Private and the Public Sector, DLA Piper, Link

[10] Gender Parity on Boards Around the World, Harvard Business Review, 5 January 2017, Link /

[11] Ibid

[12] Women in the chemical industry 2018, 11 September 2017, Link