When Kiran Valluri was 10 years old, one of the world’s worst industrial accidents happened in her home country of India. A gas leak at a pesticide plant killed at least 2,000 people in the central city of Bhopal. She learned about the disaster from her parents, whose morning routine included reading the newspaper to her as she prepared for school.
Kiran felt a powerful urge to help the victims, but over the years, Bhopal faded from her memory. Her interest in mathematics, physics and chemistry inspired her to major in civil engineering in college.
“That’s when everything came back to me about the Bhopol incident,” said Kiran, Orion’s environmental, health and safety leader for the Americas. “That’s why I chose environmental engineering for an MS degree. I’ve worked in the environmental field ever since then.”
Kiran shared her story during a panel discussion at Orion’s principal executive offices in Spring, Texas. The event celebrated the U.N.’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The wide-ranging discussion included topics such as overcoming gender stereotypes, pursuing promotions and making your voice heard in meetings.
The panel was moderated by Nicole Lewis, Orion’s senior director of operations in the Americas, who has a chemical engineering degree, MBA and 20 years of experience in industry. Also on the panel was Jennifer Stroh, Orion’s director of specialty sales and marketing for the Americas. She has a B.S. in chemistry and a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering.
Not ready yet
Women are often denied a promotion because they are told they are “not ready yet.” The panelists discussed how they have overcome such a misperception or bias against them.
“It’s important to find your network, find your group, find your mentor,” Nicole said. “I was fortunate early on in my supervisory roles to find someone who believed in me and would work with me to make sure I was ready. And I still stay in touch with that guy to this day. We probably talk once every couple of weeks.”
Nicole added she also took some risks in her career. “When people said, ‘Hey, I don’t think you’re ready,’ I dug in my heels, and I said, ‘I know I’m ready, and I know I can do it,’ and I did it. Sometimes you have to take those scary moves.”
Kiran noted that men often get promoted for their potential, while women must prove themselves to get the same things. “I hate to say that. You have to volunteer and do additional work. You need to work hard,” she said.
Also important is building good relationships — not only with your direct supervisor but also with a variety of different members of the leadership and management team, Jennifer said.
“Throughout my career, I have made a variety of what I call unsolicited pitches,” she added. “Seeing a problem, digging through the details, realizing how it can be done better, then telling anyone who would listen.”
Becoming a plant manager
The panel discussed the challenges women face becoming a plant manager in the chemicals industry. Nicole, who has worked in the role, said she has seen a shift over the years. Orion has three plant managers who are women.
“Looking at when I got out of school and started working in plants, being the only woman there, if I wore my coveralls out into the plant, all the contractors would say, ‘Who’s this woman in the plant? What is she doing here?’”
Although there has been progress, she said, women still have a ways to go. “I had the opportunity to go to a Society of Women Engineers conference this past year,” Nicole added, “and I met quite a few young engineers who said, ‘I’ve never met a female plant manager.’”
Claiming space in meetings
Studies have reported that during meetings, men interrupt or talk over women much more often than women do it to men. The panelists discussed how they claim their space and protect their airtime.
“If I have a point, I will interrupt,” Kiran said, noting that keeping quiet or feeling intimidated could put the company, employees and the community at risk when it comes to environmental, health and safety issues.
Nicole tries to look on the bright side and recognize that people interrupt because they are passionate and have something to share. “I’ll write down what I want to say. When they are done, I will speak. There are many times when I say, ‘Hey, hang on, I’m almost finished, just let me finish this thought.’ You have to read your audience and understand what’s the other person’s intent.”
Jennifer added that the meeting’s leader should be cognizant that someone is getting cut off and help redirect the discussion. But there are times when you can’t win, she added, and it’s not possible to be heard in a meeting.
“For me, I say the topic isn’t over until I say it’s over, even if the meeting ends,” Jennifer said. “You can still call those individuals. You can still get your point across. Data is your friend. One of my favorite sayings at work and at home is just because you’re loud doesn’t make you right.”