Complete Story


Women Make History in Chemistry

Women have made significant strides in the chemical industry, but more importantly, the chemical industry has made significant strides because of the contributions of women.

Women have contributed to the chemical sciences since medieval alchemy, but too often, they were invisible catalysts for discovery and innovation. Even in the 19th and 20th centuries, women in chemistry often faced discrimination and were only allowed auxiliary roles.

Despite the challenges, extraordinary and courageous women scientists persevered to create some of the life-changing innovations of our time.

DuPont chemist Stephanie Kwolek’s work with fibers led her to discover a material five times stronger than steel. Named Kevlar® by DuPont, Kwolek’s discovery has important and countless applications. It has saved lives as lightweight body armor and is used in clothing and gear to protect athletes and scientists. Kevlar ropes and cables suspend bridges and elevators. It is used in spacecraft and underseas to protect optical-fiber cable.

Physicist and chemist Katharine B. Blodgett was the first woman with a doctorate to work at General Electric, where she worked with Irving Langmuir on single-molecule surface layers. Now known as Langmuir-Blodgett films, they are essential to creating all kinds of coatings, membranes, sensors, and electronic devices, including non-reflective glass.

Patsy O’Connell Sherman co-invented the stain and water repellant treatment Scotchgard™

while at 3M. She and Samuel Smith were working on a fluorochemical rubber for jet fuel hoses when they observed the substance repelled water and oily liquids. Seeing the potential in the material, they teamed up to develop a series of stain repellants for a variety of fabrics, thus creating Scotchgard™.

Chemist Ruth Benerito developed wrinkle-free cotton by discovering a cross-linking process that strengthened the bonds between cotton’s chainlike cellulose molecules. Using a special topical chemical reagent to create a reaction in the cotton that kept the fabrics flexible but reduced their tendency to wrinkle. Her method was later used to develop stain and flame-retardant fabric. It is also used in paper and wood products as well as epoxy resins. Over her career, she amassed 55 patents.

Edith Flanigen invented molecular sieves, or zeolites while working for Union Carbide—now part of Dow. These manufacturing compounds made an important impact in the petroleum and petrochemical refining and improved the manufacture of many products from gasoline to laundry detergent.

Flanigen invented or co-invented more than 200 novel synthetic materials and made substantial contributions to make oil refining more efficient, cleaner, and safer. Flanigen’s work with molecular sieves also has led to innovative applications in water purification and environmental cleanup, including decontaminating water at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

These are just a few examples of the many life-changing contributions made by the extraordinary women scientists in chemistry.

Today, women are gaining prominence in chemical fields. Get It Made ranked the manufacturing industries that employ the most women using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2021 Current Population Survey. Chemicals manufacturing ranked number three, with women making up 38 percent of the industry’s workforce. Textiles, apparels, and leather manufacturing employs the highest percentage of women, with food manufacturing taking the number two spot.

In Texas, the industries employing the highest percentage of women are apparel manufacturing, textile product mills, and leather and allied product manufacturing. They are also among the lowest paid fields. Women account for 25 percent of jobs in chemical manufacturing, the subsector with the highest job growth. And the average annual wage is the third highest at $137,950.

Chemical companies are working to attract women to their manufacturing sites and leadership roles. BASF has set a goal of 30 percent of leadership roles in the company to be held by women by 2030.

In an interview with the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame Edith Flanigen said, “Good ideas are even better ideas when they can improve people’s lives and help the Earth.” This Women’s History Month, we celebrate all the women in chemistry whose good ideas help people flourish. And we will continue to work to pave the way for countless more women to join them in making history.


Printer-Friendly Version