Gas and the gender handicap

It would be nice to think that in 2015 discussions about gender pay parity and women’s access to leadership positions were relics of another age. Problems solved, or at least robustly tackled through programs and initiatives that aim to make the gas industry a better place for all. Unfortunately, the numbers tell a different story.

According to the latest statistics from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), the gender pay gap in the Australian gas and oil sectors is a whopping 31.1 per cent for full-time workers – and it’s getting worse, not better. What’s more, the overall energy sector is one of the lowest ranked in terms of female representation in leadership positions, with just over 5 per cent of key management positions held by women.

Figures like this are putting renewed urgency into the conversation around gender diversity, and one of the newer groups attempting to promote the issue is Melbourne-based Women in Energy (WIE). Founded by energy professional Ruchika Deora in 2013, WIE is dedicated to advancing women in the sector, through education, training, advocacy, and networking. Ms Deora has a background in oil and gas, having previously worked for ExxonMobil and EnerNOC, as well as in the non-profit sector.

Here Gas Today speaks to her about the gender problem in the gas industry, the subtle nature of today’s discrimination and what can be done to remedy things.

How did WIE come to be, and what was the inspiration behind it?

WIE formed pretty organically, and was inspired by my time working for a small- to medium-sized organisation in Australia. What I found was that, in a company of about 40 people, there were between five and ten women who were interested in developing our careers and having conversations about the challenges we were facing in the industry. But we were limited by our size, and I thought there might be an opportunity to liaise with other organisations of similar size that lacked formal resources or access to mentoring, networking, career development programs and so on. We held an initial event with the Australian Institute of Energy that was wildly successful, and this confirmed our thoughts that there was a gap in the industry for a group of this sort.

There were already some other groups such as Women in Mining and Resources and Women in Oil and Gas, but we were very careful to make sure WIE represented all women in the energy sector – attorneys, people in HR, business analysts, people in finance and risk, and so on – and not just those from a traditional technical background.

What is the group’s main objective?

Our mission is to enable women to advance their careers in the energy sector by delivering education, training, advocacy and networking. We don’t want to be just another networking group. There are many, many opportunities to network out there, but our organisation is about moving the conversation forward and trying to get the energy industry behind an action plan for increasing gender diversity in leadership positions.

What’s the current state of gender diversity in the industry?

There are roughly 40,000 women in the energy sector in Australia, depending on how you cut it. That’s about 30 per cent of the workforce. But in leadership roles, women only make up around 6 per cent. That’s really where the concern is – as well as pay parity. According to the WGEA, the gender pay gap for energy has increased by 2 per cent since last time they measured it. So we’re moving backwards, across the whole sector.

What about gas specifically?

The gas sector falls into one of the worst groups in terms of pay parity. In oil and gas, the total remuneration pay gap for full-time work is 31.1 per cent. And that’s for full-time workers, so that’s wholly unrelated to being a part-time employee because you’re a mum. On top of that, there are no female CEOs or heads of business in Australia. Almost 90 per cent of key management personnel are men, and 90 per cent of other executives and general managers are men. There’s no clear pipeline for women to reach leadership positions, so it’s about developing that within organisations.

What are some of the reasons for the lack of gender diversity?

I think there are a lot more opportunities for informal networking for men that women don’t have natural access to. That may include going to the pub, talking about the footy, playing golf, whatever. I don’t think we should begrudge men for having access to those networks, but we need to recognise that men are advancing their careers by these opportunities, and as women we need to make sure we’re finding other ways of promoting ourselves and other opportunities for advancement.

Is the gas sector still a bit of boys’ club?

There’s definitely a boys’ club mentality in the energy industry as a whole. There’s still some pervasive sexism too. But it’s moving from the overt sexist comments to a sort of micro-discrimination that’s much harder to combat. It’s not something that you can really put your finger on and say: that comment was discriminatory. It’s more to do with subtle attitudes and behaviours. And it’s not necessarily malicious! Sometimes it can come from trying to be polite, or trying to be considerate of the fact that someone has young kids, but that naturally creates a shift or distinction in how we’re treating our peers in the workplace. I’ve had women tell me about conversations with their bosses where they’ve been told: ‘Well, I didn’t put you up for that role because I know you’ve got four young children at home’. Frankly it’s a very paternalistic attitude.

Is the lack of female leadership damaging the industry?

Absolutely. And there are statistics that bear this out. Ernst & Young did a financial analysis of the top 200 utilities in the world, and the results indicated a correlation between higher gender diversity and higher business performance. It suggested that having more women in leadership roles can have a 1.5 per cent effect on your return on equity, which is billions of dollars in a capital-intensive industry like gas. There’s a range of reasons to explain this, but one factor is that diversity brings together more varied perspectives and more holistic thinking. And we need this – especially now, when the sector is going through such a time of flux. We need greater diversity of thought, more ideas, more innovation.

What are some of the specific initiatives run by WIE?

We take the approach that change needs to happen at the individual and the systemic level. So we’re running a series of workshops on professional development, where women can bring their CVs and sit down with an executive coach and do a skills gap analysis. Then if women have specific career aspirations we can help them develop a pathway to achieving that.

We’re also partnering with organisations, and then we act as more of a facilitator. We can help them establish a baseline for gender diversity within their company, help implement an effective gender diversity policy, make sure they have access to the right tools and consultants, and facilitate education at the executive level. We’re really just trying to corral the incredible passion and enthusiasm for gender diversity that’s already out there and use that to effect change.

How can women get involved in your organisation?

They can firstly check out the website – womeninenergy.com.au. We run regular events such as workshops and panel discussions. If you want to become a member, we’ve made it very accessible in terms of pricing. We’re also a member-driven organisation, so if members, whether individuals or corporations, have an idea for a workshop or a panel discussion, we’d love them to come and talk to us.

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