Perspectives: Women In The Chemical Industry

Who's the Odd Man Out?

Women now predominate in process industries publishing.

By Mark Rosenzweig, Editor in Chief

When I got my chemical engineering degree in the late 1960s, I had the choice of plenty of jobs. A major chemical manufacturer in the Midwest offered me the highest salary ($9,000/year!) but I decided to go into technical publishing. I started as an editorial assistant at a chemical industry trade magazine in New York City. Its editorial staff consisted of more than two dozen people, only two of whom were female. As I recall, none of the competitive magazines had any women in editorial positions.

At that time, the magazines primarily hired chemical engineers or other people with technical degrees. However, that alone couldn't explain the disparity between the genders. After all, even back then, women made up a sizable proportion of undergraduate chemical engineering students, often more than 20% and nearly 50% at some schools, as I discovered in researching my first cover story. The percentage of women studying chemical engineering significantly exceeded the level in any of the other major engineering disciplines then.

Perhaps female chemical engineers at the time didn't see editing as the best way to use their technical skills. Or maybe they figured they'd have a tougher time achieving a satisfying and successful career in publishing because there were so few trade magazines compared to chemical makers and engineering companies. Or conceivably, they had gotten an inkling that technical publishing was a male bastion.

Certainly, the way some products were advertised in chemical trade magazines gave a bad signal. One safety shower vendor's ad showed a nude woman under the shower. The magazine I worked for didn't allow that ad, but did publish ads from a vendor of used equipment that featured a different female model in a swimsuit each time. Magazines, of course, weren't the only venues for sexist marketing. Trade shows were rife with provocatively dressed "booth babes."

A growing chorus of complaints from both women and men led to the decline of overtly sexist marketing of products for the process industries. Vendors discovered that more potential customers were sneering rather than leering at their ads. And booth babes at chemical industry trade shows now are almost as rare as engineers who carry log-log decimal trig slide rules. (By the way, don't discard your slide rule — some have become quite valuable; see "Savor Your Slide Rule.")

Back then, and for quite some time afterward, women editors covering the process industries had to contend with far more than offensive marketing efforts. They faced issues unthinkable today.

Sometimes, men contacted for stories refused to take the editors seriously or treated them condescendingly.

I still remember an incident when a female editor on the magazine represented us at a press event in a south central state. She was the only woman and was barred from attending a dinner where the visiting editors would "schmooze" with corporate and political bigwigs. Often, one-on-one discussions at such gatherings give an editor the chance to get exclusive information or gain off-the-record insights unavailable otherwise. So, being excluded wasn't just insulting but compromised her ability to make the most of the trip.

The dinner didn't take place at some sleazy "men's" club; it was at a fancy hotel restaurant. She was told that wives weren't invited and, thus, no other women could attend.

When she returned to New York, she related what had happened to the Editor in Chief. To his credit, he sent a sharp rebuke to the sponsors of the press event, saying no one from the magazine would attend their future functions unless all editors were treated equally.

Anyone who wasn't working during that period might find such a story hard to believe. However, let me assure you this incident actually happened. Suffice it to say it was a different world then for women — and minorities.

Fortunately, our society has come a long way in the decades since. And this certainly is reflected in the process industries and publishing.

Just glance at the mastheads of leading technical magazines. The listing of top editors is telling: Rebekkah Marshall, Chemical Engineering; Cynthia Mascone, Chemical Engineering Progress; Stephany Romanow, Hydrocarbon Processing; Mark Rosenzweig, Chemical Processing; and Agnes Shanley, Pharmaceutical Manufacturing.

So, when people call me the odd man out they must say it because I'm a male Editor in Chief. At least I hope that's the reason.


Mark Rosenzweig is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief and only just a bit odd -- but that adds to his witty character. You can e-mail him at mrosenzweig@putman.net

Be sure to check out his page.

 

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