The Go-Between: Judith Hackitt

The Go-Between: Judith Hackitt

As one of the very few women leaders in a male-dominated industry, Judith Hackitt has learnt the hard way about changing mindsets. Now she's determined to help lead the industry down the road to a sustainable future. By Maria Burke

Judith Hackitt is a great bridger of gaps: between science and emotion, between business and NGOs, between regulators and industry. As director general of the Chemical Industries Association (CIA), she's on a mission to connect the chemical industry to the rest of the world and, in so doing, raise its profile and reputation. "I think she is doing a fantastic job at trying to drag the chemical industry into the 21st century, yet retaining a pragmatism which her role demands," says David Gregory, head of technology at Marks & Spencer’s food business.

Hackitt was Exxon Chemical’s first female graduate engineer in 1975, but she never intended to stay. Her plan was to work in industry for a while and then become a teacher. But the plan went awry when she discovered how much she enjoyed her job. From being Exxon’s first female plant supervisor, she became director of operations at Harcros Pigments Europe. In between times, she managed to fit in a family.

Hackitt joined the CIA as director of business and environment in 1998 because she felt that she could do a good job of improving the industry’s languishing reputation. “My mission was not simply to represent it, but to bring about a culture change within the industry itself, and get it re-engaging with stakeholders in a way that would earn it a new and better reputation.”

It helps that she believes passionately in the industry. “The products of the chemical industry bring enormous benefits to society and it is an enormous economic contributor,” she insists. “Unfortunately, the industry’s reputation does not reflect the importance to society, largely because the industry has not handled its communications well.” Her attitude is refreshing in a sector that is often accused of defensiveness. “We should not blame others for our failures,” she insists. “Often, we fail because we’ve not listened properly to people’s questions.”

Since taking up the top job at the CIA, she’s become an ambassador for the industry, but also a go-between to the outside world. “I have built up genuine relationships based on trust and an honest exchange of views outside the normal stakeholder communities. By doing this, I can help change misconceptions on both sides, and we can all explain our positions.”

She has certainly forged new links within the environmental movement. “They are not convinced yet, but they are open-minded and not so negative.” She even managed to persuade a reluctant Greenpeace to get round the table, and ended up with a joint position on authorizing chemicals. John Monks, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, has remarked on Hackitt’s “bold leadership,” developing common ground with trade unions and consumer groups as well as NGOs.

But, while Hackitt knows how to listen and respond to concerns, she believes that the chemical industry as a whole is still finding that hard. “The key,” she says, “is to educate industry in how external expectations are changing. Society is less risk-tolerant and it expects answers. We need to know how to respond to people’s fears about emotive subjects like children’s health, or chemicals found in breast milk. We mustn’t be scared to admit what we don’t know, and to share all the information we’ve got.”

To her mind, the root of the problem is a culture based on science and engineering. “It’s very much a black-and-white, right-and-wrong culture. We need to learn to encompass and value different views, and take on board emotional concerns. The key is to listen and to respect.” She is convinced that this change is happening, although there’s still a long way to go.

Hackitt also blames this culture for the dearth of women in the chemical industry. It doesn’t have any problems attracting women; in fact, over half of new recruits are female. But it does have problems in keeping them. “We need to be more welcoming, more culturally diverse,” she stresses. “We need to change the [industry’s] stereotype of a white, middle-aged man.”

She herself has got used to being one of the few women in a male-dominated business. Until very recently, all 25 members of the CIA’s council were male. Even now she admits that there are times when people don’t listen because she is a woman. “I just tell them again until they do,” she says. “But this lack of diversity within the industry is a weakness that needs to be overcome if it is to continue to be successful.”

While Hackitt struggles to bring about this culture change, she’s also been pushing the industry down the route of sustainable development. “Sustainable development, and the technological solutions needed to address climate change, can’t happen without us. We are part of the solution. This is a real opportunity for us. But it is a real challenge too, because first we have to address the legacies of the past and then change our way of doing things.”

“Sustainable development underpins all I say and do,” she insists. “I am absolutely committed to its principles. Most of the industry, too, has accepted that we need to make the journey, but now the debate is about the destination and how we get there. The Chemistry Leadership Council’s Vision document will make people realize just how big this mountain is to climb. It will be fascinating to see how they respond.”
For the environmentalists, it’s good to know she’s personally committed. Robert Napier, chief executive of WWF-UK, describes her as “a progressive person who completely understands that the sustainability bar needs to be raised the whole time.” But it’s a tough job. “It’s hard running a trade association where everyone -- the leaders and the laggards -- are all herded together,” says Napier. “Judith recognizes the important role that the leaders play and she is trying to ensure that their voice is sufficiently loud. But there must be times when the laggards hold her back.”

Despite these constraints, Hackitt certainly believes that she has raised the profile of the industry, and sees that as one of her main achievements. “Industry around the world now recognizes the CIA and the UK chemical industry as being at the leading edge of stakeholder engagement and in rebuilding trust. The industry worldwide is looking to us to help them adopt some of our successful groundbreaking new behaviors.”

As to the future, her priorities for the CIA remain the same, but she’s now ready for a new challenge, and one that harps back to her original desire to be a teacher. She’d like the opportunity to persuade future generations of young people that they can make a difference in the world of business. “I would like to be given the task of leading an educational campaign to inspire young people for the role they can play in delivering sustainable development.” It seems a job she’s perfectly cut out for.

This article has been reprinted courtesy of Green Futures magazine. It first appeared in the September/October 2005 edition of that publication.