Dow is committed to supporting women at every level of its business — so that, as doors open to the next generation of female leaders, so do new ideas for delivering sustainable solutions.
“Without first solving for internal equality, you won’t have a diverse set of thinking and ultimately the best team to drive external impact.” — Julie Zaniewski
“Like everything in science, we need to strive toward continual improvement.” — Jennifer Ronk
Since 1970, US women in science have made significant gains in the workforce — from a mere 8 percent to 27 percent in 2019, according to the Census Bureau.
While men still dominate the STEM field overall, Dow has the privilege of counting many women in STEM among its leaders. To dig deeper on issues relating to the advancement of gender parity, both in the workplace and in local communities, we interviewed a core group of female leaders from Dow’s Packaging and Specialty Plastics North America division: Julie Zaniewski, North America Sustainability Director; Michelle Sauder, Senior Marketing Manager for Food and Specialty Packaging; Jennifer Ronk, North America Senior Sustainability Manager; Heather Turner, Associate Marketing Director; and Ashley Leidolf, End-Use Marketing Manager. Here’s what they shared.
Opening doors to women
While the number of women joining the workforce has improved over the past decade, women in the leadership pipeline are still underrepresented at every level. What’s more, a recent PEW study found that one in five women in STEM see their gender as a barrier to advancement, which further complicates an organization’s ability to improve its leadership pipeline. Understanding the dynamics of female leadership roles — from mentorship to purpose — may be a key to unlocking this paradigm.
Q: What does it mean to be a female leader at Dow?
Julie Zaniewski: Being a female leader at Dow means opportunity. Not just an opportunity to shape the next generation of the company in sustainability — but also an opportunity to lead people to find their own impact within the organization. At Dow, there is a strong sense of responsibility to lead by example; as there are so many smart, motivated and purposeful team members looking for how they can be part of bringing sustainable solutions to life.
Heather Turner: Each role that I have had at Dow over the last 20 years has provided new leadership and growth. Dow has also been very flexible — as I have had times in my career where I was on an accelerated path, and other times where I could be in contributor roles part-time to accommodate family responsibilities, and that support has been critical to my success personally and professionally.
Jennifer Ronk: One of the things that attracted me to Dow was the number of women in leadership positions. I’m old enough to have had contractors tell me they wouldn’t listen to instructions from a woman. I told myself I was fighting those battles so that the women who came after me wouldn’t face the same challenges. But change takes time; and I’ve had to stand up for women reporting to me, as well. Today, the real challenge feels like complacency — I hear things like, “Things are better, so isn’t that enough?” But like everything in science, we need to strive toward continual improvement.
Q: What accomplishments are you most proud of as a woman in STEM and sustainability? What have you learned along the way?
Julie Zaniewski: I take the most pride in hearing colleagues tell me they have taken more purpose-driven roles personally or professionally, in part because of our discussions about impact and responsibility. Investing in the next generation of young leaders in sustainability and purpose is vital.
Ashley Leidolf: I’m proud of the fact that I’ve had a somewhat non-traditional career path; yet I’ve been able to incorporate sustainability and purpose into every role that I’ve had, even before there were official sustainability titles at every company. Recently, I was elected as an Executive Committee member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. It means a lot to me to be recognized by my industry peers as a leader.
Michelle Sauder: My role as a leader at Dow and in STEM allows me to continue to open doors and eliminate barriers for women. It’s given me the opportunity to meet with early-career women in Dow, and share my experiences and my path to facilitate their next steps.
How women are solving for external impact
Speaking at the World Petrochemical Conference, Dow CEO Jim Fitterling recently said, “We need that diversity of thought and perspective in solving problems.” Diverse teams — including gender and racial parity, inclusion of youth, and multiculturalism — help apply diverse thinking for organizations that want to solve tough challenges, such as reducing waste and achieving a low-carbon future. Balancing the number of male and female leaders is more than just a numbers game; it’s imperative for innovation and sustainable, economic and societal growth for businesses and our communities.
Q: How are companies driving impact around the world, and what does this mean for women in STEM?
Julie Zaniewski: Every responsible business has a purpose, and those who do it well often draw inspiration from and harness the voice and passions of their employees — and that includes giving women a platform to be heard. Without first solving for internal equality, you won’t have a diverse set of thinking and ultimately the best team to drive external impact.
At Dow, our aspiration is to prevent 99 percent of the world’s plastic from ending up in the environment. Women in STEM who drive innovation in sustainability, and the female leaders in communities that catalyze local climate action, are vital to achieving our vision.
Jennifer Ronk: A good example of this is Dow’s funding for NGOs that have a direct impact on vulnerable women around the world. The best example right now is a new project called ASPPIRe with Ocean Conservancy. Working with women-led organizations in Vietnam and Colombia, ASPPIRe aims to improve conditions for informal waste workers while developing end-markets for low-value plastics such as bags and films. The project is also underpinned by a broad group of industry and NGO leaders, many of which are led by women.
Achieving gender parity to solve for sustainable solutions
Gender parity — in the workplace and beyond — is not only vital to progress, it accelerates it. In fact, a recent study found that women’s equality represents $12 trillion in global growth. But often, women’s opportunities to advance stall at the very first rung of the management ladder, costing an organization valuable fresh thinking and approaches.
Mentorship, both male and female, plays a big role in positioning women to succeed in key areas of a business, such as material science innovation or circularity strategy, that support their advancement through the leadership pipeline. When women are given equal opportunities, it brings new, inclusive and authentic approaches to purpose and sustainability.
Q: What advice would you give other women in STEM and to those who aspire to work in sustainability-focused careers?
Julie Zaniewski: One of the key enablers that makes a significant difference is being surrounded by like-minded colleagues — key leaders, regardless of gender, who were intent on lifting their team members up and providing a pathway to do things differently if the “conventional” way wasn’t working.
Jennifer Ronk: The “HeForShe” movement is so important. I became a geologist at a time when women were told that they don’t belong in geology. But I also found men who were allies and mentors and became a geologist, anyway.
My advice to other women in STEM would be to find those allies and mentors, stand up for yourself — but don’t judge others that don’t feel comfortable standing up. You need to be the ally and mentor to help them, too.
Michelle Sauder: We are all on the same team. If we don’t support each other, we are creating barriers instead of eliminating them. Ultimately, I am optimistic about the future for women leaders because I see companies and the world recognizing that women’s unique character traits and leadership styles bring quantifiable benefits. We are moving away from a mindset of how women fit into a male world, to how the world can be better because we have women leaders.
As the world confronts one of the greatest challenges of a generation — climate change — a diversity of ideas will be critical to problem solving key areas, such as reducing waste and emissions and innovating for circularity. Dow is committed to supporting women at every level of its business — so that, as doors open to the next generation of female leaders, so do new ideas for delivering sustainable solutions. Gender parity in the workforce is good for business — and good for our planet.