First female DuPont CEO gets real on gender inequality

Ellen Kullman discussed the pay gap, equal opportunities and sexual harassment in Wilmington.

Former DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman discussed equal pay and opportunities for women, as well as sexual harassment in the workplace, during an event in Wilmington Tuesday night.

Named one of the 50 most powerful women by Forbes, the first woman to lead DuPont offered her thoughts on how women can achieve success in the workplace.

“There’s a lot of opportunity out there in the world and women have to find their voice, and part of that is not only having the confidence, but also the willingness to put yourself out there,” Kullman said. “It doesn’t always work out, but you can always learn from them and strengthen yourself and really create a great path forward for your career or your life.”

She currently co-chairs Paradigm for Parity, a coalition of business leaders working to change the corporate leadership gender gap. Sixty companies, including Walmart and United Technologies, have signed up for the five-point action plan to eliminate gender inequality.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The plan includes providing sponsors and mentors to women who have potential, increasing the number of women in senior operating roles and eliminating unconscious bias. The coalition aims to implement all the plans by 2030.

Kullman said unconscious bias, particularly on a structural level, is the most challenging issue to tackle.

“I can remember early on being part of a team and one of the guys said, ‘We can’t pick her, she just got married and might get pregnant … Granted, this was the ’80s,” she said.

“Unconscious bias is something we all hold, but there are ways to train people to be aware. Structural bias is tougher to go after because it’s more of the culture of the company. If it takes you 18 to 24 months to promote a man and it takes you 30 to 36 months to promote a woman from the same job into the same job that’s structural bias. These new HR systems give you this data instantaneously. If you can see the data you can do something about it. There’s a lot of things companies are doing, whether it’s training, whether it’s right metrics to understand, ‘Are they treating people the same, and if they’re not why not?’”

Kullman discussed her experience being one of only a few women in leadership positions at DuPont, and said companies aren’t giving women enough opportunities for these roles.

“We as women have gotten more college degrees than men for the last 30 years, but by the time you get into middle management ranks you’re down to about 30 percent, and by time you get in the senior management ranks you’re down between 10 or 20 percent. So, why is that? Are they measuring it? Do they have metrics? Do they have goals? For some it’s as simple as are you actually hiring at gender neutral rate? 50/50?” she said.

“The amazing thing to me is companies think they can get to gender parity when they’re hiring 70 percent men and 30 percent women. The math just doesn’t work.”

Kullman also called out companies for creating a system that ensures women don’t earn as much as their male co-workers.

“Don’t blame the woman for the pay disparity—blame the company,” she said.

“We had disparity, and our disparity was we were promoting men every two years and promoting women every two and a half or three years, so you get out 15 years and men are making more money than women. So I went through and I gave these people raises—and the pushback was, ‘Oh my god, they will know we’re underpaying them.’ I said, ‘I think they know already,’ and I said, ‘That’s not how I’m going to approach them.’”

During the event, Kullman also discussed increasing allegations of sexual harassment in the media, politics, Hollywood and sports. She said she was never harassed by a boss, but occasionally peers would overstep the line.

“[I would get] the old proposition, and I would laugh and say, ‘It’s very complimentary, but no.’ Back in the ‘80s, it was: ‘My wife doesn’t understand me.’ And I would say, ‘I know why.’ It was never put yourself in that situation, never be alone. Sometimes it was a male buddy that would be with me to make sure if things were getting out of hand, too alcohol infused, we’ll just get out of there. They had to change the entertainment a few times because it would have been inappropriate for a woman at a customer event, and that’s when I lost it one time. Long story. Let’s just say that event didn’t occur the next year. I just think you get trained and have defense mechanisms,” Kullman said.

“I think what kills me about what’s going on in the media today, it’s not like people didn’t know about some of these people. People say, ‘Why didn’t they come out until now?’ They probably were talking about it or afraid for their careers. I just think it’s about time.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal