MIDLAND, Mich.—Diversity and inclusion remain a focus of workplaces in the petrochemicals market and beyond.
Executives from Dow Inc., Celanese Corp. and IHS Markit addressed those topics March 9 during the online World Petrochemical Conference hosted by IHS Markit.
Fitterling, chairman and CEO of plastics and chemicals leader Dow of Midland, Mich., said that meeting diversity goals could be more challenging after the COVID-19 pandemic because women and minorities have been harder hit by that event.
"There already were systemic issues with parity in the workplace, but now more women than men have left the work force," he added. Overall, Fitterling said that diversity "is a business multiplier."
"If we're going to be the most innovative, we have to be inclusive," he said. "We have to step forward now."
Fitterling also placed diversity in the context of his experience of coming out as gay while at Dow in 2014.
"I came out late in life, and the impact of being out and coming to work every day vs. being in the closet and coming to work every day, the impact was to take a ton of stress off my shoulders," he said. "That stress makes you unproductive.
"Now imagine if you're a person of color and you can't hide that fact at work, you carry that with you every day. If you're a woman and you don't see role models … you carry that every day," he said. "It's our job as leaders to create an environment where people want to come into that workplace."
Fitterling recalled that when he came out, former Dow CEO Frank Popoff called him and said "it's the best thing you could have ever done."
Popoff had been supportive of former Dow board member Alan Gilmour in 1996 when Gilmour was outed as gay in the Detroit media. Gilmour, the chief financial officer of Ford Motor Co. at the time, "was very worried about the reaction, but (Popoff) said 'Alan, don't worry, I'll take care of it,' and Frank did. Frank called every single board member and it was a non-issue at Dow," Fitterling said.
He added that when he was being considered for the chief operations officer job at Dow, he told former CEO Andrew Liveris that he "didn't want to be on the front page of newspapers somewhere."
"I said I'd like to come out on my own and I'd like it to be my own story," Fitterling recalled. "(Liveris) said I want you to go see every member of the board. I went and visited them one by one and to a person they all said to me: 'This is exactly the right thing to do, we support you, we're glad you're doing it and don't ever look back.'
"That's the culture that we have at Dow."
'Create role modeling'
Celanese CEO Lori Ryerkirk, one of the few female CEOs in the plastics and chemicals field, said that diversity "was about being intentional."
She added that Dallas-based Celanese "had been working on diversity for a long time" before Ryerkerk joined the firm in 2019. Half of Celanese's board members now are female.
"The biggest problem is how to create role modeling," Ryerkerk said. "Employees want to look up and say 'If she can do it, I can do it too.'
"You have to be able to see it. If they don't see people who look like them, they say 'Why am I trying so hard?'"
A lot of companies now need to deal with "getting rid of leaders who don't walk the talk," according to Ryerkerk. "Even if they're good performers, if you want people to believe that you're an inclusive workplace, you have to get rid of them and bring in those who support the culture you're trying to create," she said.
IHS Chairman and CEO Lance Uggla said that once a company has diversity platforms in place, it can attract better customers, shareholders and talent.
He added that the murder of George Floyd in 2020—an event that led to many racial justice marches and rallies—"highlighted biases."
"That showed us that the changes that are needed were coming slower than we'd like," Uggla said. "It's not about ticking off boxes, it's about real actions. You can't be afraid to talk about real issues."