OPINION | Women in the energy sector still an endangered species

If Jason Kenney really wants to help the oil and gas industry defend its reputation, he’d be better served investing the war room’s $30 million annual budget into efforts that increase the participation rate of women in the industry.

Sexism in oil and gas industry a reflection of how few women are working there

If nothing else, more women in more leadership positions would mean fewer offensive stickers floating around the patch. (Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from Max Fawcett, a freelance writer and the former editor of Alberta Oil magazine.


You almost have to feel for the people in the Canadian Energy Centre.

After dealing with the fallout from their decision to use two different logos that appeared to have been borrowed from other organizations, they're now staring down the barrel of an even bigger design-driven public relations nightmare.

Last week, social media users drew attention to a Red Deer-based oilfield services company called X-Site Energy Services, which had distributed a lewd sticker of 17-year-old Greta Thunberg.

A contractor who had worked with X-Site inadvertently poured gasoline on this fire by noting, in an attempt to defend the company, that there were other stickers and decals out in the field that were even more obscene and offensive.

For an industry that likes to position itself as an ethical alternative to the oil that's produced by places like Saudi Arabia and Russia, this is not a good look. 

It shouldn't be a surprising one, though.

Stories of sexism in the oil and gas industry are hardly new, and you don't have to look too far to find misogynist vitriol being directed at female leaders from within it, whether it's Rachel Notley and former environment minister Shannon Phillips or international figures like Thunberg and Tzeporah Berman.

An endangered species

That's at least in part a reflection of how few women there are working in that industry, much less at its highest echelons. As University of Calgary chancellor and former Calgary Herald columnist Deborah Yedlin wrote in 2017, "if you are female and in the energy sector, you are unique. An endangered species." 

As of 2018, only nine per cent of the available board seats and 11 per cent of executive roles in the oil and gas industry were held by women. The energy services sector didn't fare any better, with women comprising eight per cent of its executives and 13 per cent of its board members.

Those who make it into the industry find it particularly challenging to advance in operational roles, which are often a way station on the path to an executive-level position.

"Once women in operations reach the senior manager level, they suffer in comparison to men in every way — hiring, attrition and promotion," noted a 2019 paper by McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm. 

"The result: women hold only two per cent of C-suite operational positions."

Even when they do get to the C-Suite, women don't advance as quickly as their male peers. The proportion of women declines 38 per cent when you move from vice-president to senior vice-president on the organizational chart, a figure that's nearly twice as big as it is for other STEM industries. 

This is, on its own, a problem that needs to be addressed.

As of 2018, only 9 per cent of the available board seats and 11 per cent of executive roles in the oil and gas industry were held by women. (Shutterstock)

As McKinsey's previous research has shown, companies in the top quartile for women leaders are 15 per cent more likely to have above-average financial returns.

And as one oil and gas executive told the McKinsey researchers, "by 2025, we are going to be a millennial and generation Z workforce [that is] inclusive and diverse. If your business is not, you are going to get bottom-of-the-barrel workers."

There's even evidence that companies with more women on their boards face fewer environmental lawsuits.

But the biggest benefit of more female representation in the energy sector would be its impact on the corporate groupthink that has afflicted the sector, one that may have contributed directly to its inability to see and respond to change.

Blind spots

Most companies, and most boards, in the oil and gas industry are populated by people with similar academic and professional backgrounds. They tend to travel in the same social circles, share similar cultural experiences, and enjoy a common set of privileges. And they tend, not surprisingly, to have the same blind spots. 

Those blind spots meant they all couldn't see the kinds of risks associated with, say, building pipelines through unceded Indigenous territory. It meant they couldn't see the need to tell a story about their industry rather than offering a compilation of technical information. And it meant they couldn't adapt quickly enough when technology unlocked the billions of barrels of oil stored in America's shale basins.

Without anyone in a position to illuminate those blind spots or challenge the beliefs they lead to, the same mistakes tended to get made over and over again.

Mistakes are still being made, too.

Right now, leaders in the industry, from the head of CAPP to the CEOs of a number of large companies, are doubling down on a combative and confrontational approach to winning support for fossil fuels — and specifically their fossil fuels.

That approach was on display at January's "Value of Alberta" conference, where presenters — almost all of them men — blamed the federal government, climate science and the Canadian constitution for Alberta's recent struggles. Keynote speaker (and Trump enthusiast) Conrad Black even went so far as to suggest that Alberta's energy sector was being "persecuted" because of Ottawa's policies on climate change. 

It's not too late for the industry to change course and finally embrace the importance of having more women in positions of power.

Conrad Black was the keynote speaker at January's Value of Alberta conference. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

There have been some changes in recent years that have increased the number of women on corporate boards in Canada, such as the so-called "comply or explain" legislation that came into effect in 2015. It requires publicly listed companies to disclose the number and proportion of women in their executive ranks and on their board, as well as what their policies and procedures are for identifying and empowering female leaders. 

But even with these changes, at the current rate of "improvement," it would take nearly a century to achieve gender parity on the boards and in the C-Suites of Canadian energy companies.

A diversity of perspectives

If they and their shareholders want to stick around that long, they need to embrace a diversity of both people and perspectives at their highest levels in a way that they haven't before.

They need to tie executive compensation directly to metrics that measure their success at increasing diversity, not drilling. They need to implement term and age limits for directors in order to stimulate turnover and create new opportunities. And they need to ensure that the already low number of women who enter the industry aren't deterred from pursuing positions in key operational areas by quiet, and maybe even not-so-quiet, sexism. 

If Jason Kenney really wants to help the oil and gas industry defend its reputation, he'd be better served investing the war room's $30-million annual budget into efforts that increase the participation rate of women in the industry.

Yes, picking fights with the New York Times might thrill his base, but pushing his province's oil and gas companies to recruit and retain more women would improve both its diversity and its decision-making and help prepare it for an increasingly uncertain future that no amount of Twitter trolling can avert.

If nothing else, more women in more leadership positions would mean fewer offensive stickers floating around the patch — and maybe fewer embarrassing international incidents that result from them.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


  • An earlier version of this story referred to the stickers as "potentially criminal" but, after reviewing the decals, the RCMP determined that, while "distasteful," they did "not meet the elements of child pornography."
    Mar 03, 2020 1:53 PM MT


Max Fawcett is the former editor of Alberta Oil and Vancouver magazines. He worked in the Alberta government’s climate change office between 2017 and 2019.


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