It is a well-known fact that the energy and engineering sectors are traditionally male-dominated spheres. Pretty much every stock photo of a sooty-faced miner, hard-hat bearing oil worker, or tanned solar panel fitter will be of a man. Indeed, if you type “energy worker” into Google images, you will be met with a sea of (predominantly white) male faces. With International Women’s Day happening this week, I wanted to explore to what extent this is still the case and what needs to be done to literally change the picture.
Depending on where you look, the percentage of women in the energy workforce varies from 9-25%. In this regard, Xodus fares slightly better than average with around a third of employees being women. On the plus side, in both Xodus and the energy sector at large, this is recognised as being suboptimal. Studies have shown that companies with female board members, women in senior roles, and a diverse workforce perform more innovatively and generally have higher returns to show for it. It makes economic, as well as moral, sense to increase the proportion of women and there are industry targets, such as the 30% women by 2030 target in the UK Offshore Wind Sector Deal, to help achieve this.
Encouraging more girls from a young age to study STEM subjects and then hiring them into the energy sector is a good first step towards achieving this. But, as I learned when delving into the gender data available at Xodus, it’s not enough. At lower employment grades, Xodus is either close to meeting or even exceeding the 30% target. However, as seniority increases the proportion of women drops sharply. Hiring women isn’t the problem; the problem is supporting women up the corporate ladder.
It’s worth noting that this is not just an issue at Xodus. Across the economy, we see women and men performing similarly early on in their careers and then men continue to progress while women do not. So why is this and what can be done to address it? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is complicated. A lack of female role models can mean women – and managers who might promote them – don’t see certain careers as being an option. Companies with an “old boys club” culture exclude women and make it impossible for them to fully participate in the corporation. Patriarchal attitudes can deny women access to jobs that are deemed too dirty, dangerous, or technical, regardless of whether the women think otherwise. These are all issues I know women have faced in the energy sector and all deserve a far closer look than I have space for here.
Instead, I will focus on the most obvious barrier to women’s progression: having children. Having children affects women’s careers in a way that it simply doesn’t affect men. To a certain extent that’s understandable. The biological toll of literally growing a human means that women will have to take more time off than men, whose role at this stage of child rearing might generously be called hands-off. However, the gap in women’s employment extends far beyond this stage. The burden of care disproportionately falls on them and with often prohibitively high childcare costs, they are either unable to afford to return to work or can only return part-time until the child is school-aged. What could have been a few months employment gap becomes a few years – a much harder bridge to cross.
The good news is that there are plenty of things that can be done to address this inequality. Equal paternity and maternity leave (or leave that can be shared between parents) removes the onus on women to be sole care providers while giving men the same opportunity to bond with their children and be active parents. Subsidised or onsite childcare and flexible working conditions can help remove financial barriers and make returning to work economically feasible. Dedicated Return-to-Work training and development programs can help employees who have had career breaks (which can happen for any number of reasons, not just pregnancy) to quickly get up to speed with knowledge and skills they may have missed while away – particularly important in technical fields.
That such initiatives can be successful at addressing the gender gap is unequivocal. Each has become common practice in the Nordics who now consistently have the smallest gender disparities in the world, including in their energy sectors. However, their success hinges on an accompanying change of attitudes and expectations. It doesn’t matter how long paternity leave is or how flexible a company’s working policies are if employees feel they will incur negative judgement for taking advantage of them. It is a common complaint that men would like to take longer paternity leave and spend more time with their children but fear they will be seen as less serious about their careers for doing so. Similarly, part-time workers are often perceived to be lesser than their full-time colleagues and so are not considered for promotion or more challenging projects. Indeed, in some companies even daring to leave the office before your boss can be taken as a sign that you’re not working hard enough. When hours are valued more than outcomes the odds are stacked against women. Flip this and you level the playing field.
If we’re serious about addressing the gender gap, then we need to stop valuing the specific hours worked over the outcomes achieved. This requires leadership from the top – those in charge (particularly men) need to be agents of change and lead by example. The theme of International Women’s Day this year was Choose to Challenge so I hereby throw down this gauntlet: I challenge men – particularly those in senior roles – to take advantage of extended paternity leave. I challenge men to work part-time alongside your partners so that neither of you needs to take extended career breaks to start families. I challenge men to make use of flexible working and let everyone know – as a manager of mine recently did – that you’re leaving to see your child’s lacrosse game. I challenge men to show that it’s ok to take time out and that you’ll be supported to come back and thrive afterwards. I challenge men to mentor women and support them to achieve their potential. I have personally benefitted greatly from having amazing male mentors and managers who have encouraged me to pursue opportunities that I otherwise might not have – it makes a real difference.
The energy sector is currently undergoing a huge change as we transition away from the old systems towards the new. This provides a unique chance to change corporate culture alongside it, to normalise flexible working and address some of the challenges that stop women progressing. We have a chance to design an energy system that works for everyone. Let’s use it.