Coming Soon To A Chemical Plant Near You: DE&I

So you’ve got your new ERP complete with SAP, and you’ve pledged to sort your ESG. Now you need your DE&I.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion has taken a backseat to sustainability in past years. As well as being about fundamental rights and dignity, it’s a critical part of the human infrastructure for a company looking to retain talent and outperform unenlightened peers. (As a reminder, Equity is for fair treatment, eliminating barriers, and providing a sense of belonging).

Taken as a whole, the chemical industry is still seen as a bit of a laggard for DE&I among experts. Past studies by the National Centre for Science and Engineering Statistics and the Royal Society of Chemistry make grim reading, an overwhelmingly white academic landscape at postgraduate levels. And in the workplace, while there are more female chemistry graduates than ever before, glass ceilings endure. There are notable signs of change on the gender front. Leaders like Celanese’s Lori Ryerkerk, Sherwin-Williams’ Heidi Petz, Solvay’s Ilham Kadri and Royal DSM’s Geraldine Matchett are following in the footsteps of the DuPont’s Ellen Kullmann and Dow Corning’s Stephanie Burns.

I spoke to Marvin Mendoza, head of DE&I at PPG Industries. Given Mendoza’s only direct prior connection to chemicals was his husband, who works in the industry, his switch to the US coatings company from leading DE&I at PwC was something of a statement of intent for PPG. His goal? To work himself “out of a job.”

Here’s an excerpt of Mendoza’s conversation with chemicalESG. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Why choose the chemical industry, some might say it’s not the easiest of gigs?

In 2020, with Covid and George Floyd’s killing, I had seen that there was a lot of organizations that were either starting off on the journey or needed to completely rethink what they were doing because of the pressure from investors, the big push for ESG and transparency etc. I realised I could probably make a bigger mark on a company that is either just starting out or restarting their efforts. Chemicals wasn’t my focus, but I knew that chemicals and manufacturing generally speaking for HR related topics aren’t the leaders.”

How have investors’ demand impacted your job?

When I started at PPG in November 2020, I would probably say my time was 75% spent with employees and then the rest spent externally with communities, customers and investors. Now, it’s starting to be more evenly split. On investors alone, I’m probably spending about 15%, and a lot of time with our customers. Some of the big automotive customers have been focused on DE&I for quite some time and we are learning from each other. It’s a little bit harder in chemicals and B-to-B companies to see that direct tie between DE&I and commercial value but we’re starting to see it.

What’s next on your DE&I agenda?

Our strategy intentionally was pretty narrow, I call it Version 1.0 and it’s focused on representation of women globally, and Black, Latinx and Asian professionals in the US. If a company tries to do too much too quickly, for everybody, then there’s not a lot of gain in any particular area. I was really happy to see at the end of Year 1 a 13% increase in black professionals, 9% in Latinx, and 8% Asians. Now I am starting to think about what we can extend our focus to. What’s really important is not the number of females we have, but what is the number of females in top management positions versus middle management positions and putting strategies in place to move people up. I can tell you that in most of corporate America, it’s going to be kind of a pyramid where you have less and less of an under-represented group as you get to the top. There’s talent leakage as you move up an organisation.

What about the shop floor and DE&I?

When I did my benchmarking to see what our representation should be on the shop floor, we were at benchmark representation for women at the frontline level, at 25%. In terms of representation, I don’t have concerns today. But I do have concerns about is that sense of belonging and understanding the issues of DE&I. The reality is the tools you employ like training courses are not as easy when you’re on the shop floor for 8 hours, with an hour break. How do you get DE&I content and conversations to your shop floor? The majority of companies say we don’t focus on it there as it’s too hard. That’s not good enough. We’re taking some of our content for corporate employees and packaging in site activation kits for sites. There’s a poster, there’s a short video that’s like a 5 minute summary of the hour long video for non-frontline employees. We’re making that content kind of bite-sized.

How was the reception?

I have had some difficult discussions with some folks on the frontline who don’t understand why we are focused on DE&I. I have data to show at PPG there are variances that people have depending on their race and gender. It’s great having those discussions as I understand the hesitation people may have to the journey and I learn a little bit from them about how to message things and new tactics. When I don’t hear pushback on my DE&I methods, that’s when I get worried.

What will be AI’s role in all of this?

We just hired at PPG what we call a head of People Insights. This gentleman’s job is to essentially help us advance our thinking in analytics and data, and eventually be predictive. Today, we are not where I would like us to be. We are able to project out what will be our representation in five years from now and will we be able to meet the goals set. And when I see that a business isn’t there, I have twice a year score-card discussions with the business leaders, and I’m able to put pressure on them and say you need to focus more on attrition in this particular demographic. I would like to be more predictive on attrition. Can we be more predictive on when people are going to leave and who is going to leave. We’re not there yet.

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