BASF's Heidi Alderman; Breaking Gender Barriers in Engineering

By Barbara Frankel

Heidi Alderman’s career path has been anything but traditional. A chemical engineer, she’s been a leader in operations and procurement in the very male-dominated chemical industry.

Today, she heads Petrochemicals in North America for Germany-based BASF. The Petrochemicals sector is a $5 billion business, manufacturing and marketing products created in plants in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Ontario, Canada. Alderman, based in Houston, is a member of BASF’s executive diversity council and is a strong supporter of increased hiring and promoting of women and people from other underrepresented groups. She is also the chair of BASF’s Executive Women in Leadership group.

She cites the council’s decision to require diverse slates as a major game-changer.

“Once we impacted that requirement, we started getting a diversity of people applying. We now have an environment that’s a lot more fun—and when people are having fun, they are more productive and their work is better,” she says.

She adds: “Diversity attracts diversity. You just have to start somewhere. Sometimes it’s difficult to get those diverse slates because candidates will say, ‘There’s nobody who looks like me. How am I going to fit in’ And then they apply.”

Early STEM Adaptor

A New Jersey native, Alderman came to her unusual career path in school. She was always good at math and science, and in high school, her chemistry teacher told her she should be an engineer. “I didn’t know what an engineer was or did, but it was the right decision for me,” she recalls.

She graduated from Stevens Institute of Technology and went to work at Rohm and Haas in Philadelphia as a Process Engineer. While employed there, she earned her master’s degree in chemical engineering and eventually moved on to Air Products and Chemicals and, in 2003, to BASF. She has had a variety of roles, from technical to management to procurement, each with increasing responsibility.

She’s seen a significant change in the number of women entering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields, which she says makes the pool of candidates deeper and stronger.

Alderman cites the lack of role models early in her career and how substantially that’s changing. “There were almost no female role models, and the few that were there didn’t really mentor other women. I had one really good mentor who was a man, but I could have benefited from having someone from my own gender who had faced similar issues. Now I see women wanting to become role models for younger women,” she says.

She also notes a change in men as more women become the primary breadwinner or share responsibilities. “The issues on work/life balances were always around the women. Now, the dual-career issue is a challenge for everyone—how do companies manage dual careers in a global company” she asks.

Generationally, Alderman notes that younger women are less likely to fall into the “superwoman” syndrome of trying to be the best employee, wife, mother, etc. She tells her mentees to “just manage work/life expectations” and not to try to be perfect at everything, but notes that “it’s a big challenge.”

Staying Connected

BASF’s workplace, in the United States and globally, has become increasingly flexible. She dates the change to 2008 and admits that allowing employees to telecommute or work different hours was a big cultural shift for a German chemical company that was more used to rigid schedules.

“We’ve given people the tools to stay in touch. That line is very fuzzy, though. When I go on vacation, I’m always checking my email so it’s not a true disconnect from work,” she says.

However, she adds: “The more flexible we can be, the more loyalty employees have for the company.”

Having an increasingly diverse workforce, she notes, makes the corporate culture more inclusive and amenable to these types of changes.

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