By Sofia Gomez Durham – Head of Shipping Americas, Equinor
Diversity and inclusion to strengthen the energy sector
It is a well-accepted fact that access to energy brings economic development and technological advancement, and with development comes opportunity. Opportunity to make the world a better place and opportunity to increase diversity and inclusion in our businesses and communities.
In developing countries, increasing access to energy may provide young girls access to education and ultimately, better living conditions. In developed countries, changing to cleaner and sustainable forms of energy may create new business opportunities and career paths for women. It is for those reasons that I am proud to say I work in energy.
I learned the expectations of being a woman very early on in life, growing up in a traditional Latin household. My mom worked very hard as a doctor, but she had a strong support system in place with family, friends, and household help.
Little did I know in my teens and early 20’s how challenging this task of “being a woman”, working in a foreign country, away from everyone I knew, would be. I started my career in oilfield services. I worked in remote locations around the world, including the North West Territories and the middle of the dessert in Oman.
At times, these locations had no access to basic services such as a restroom. I always requested challenging assignments, knowing that it would lead to rapid progression in my career. Because I had access to education, I was fortunate enough to not face many of the difficulties women in countries with a low GDP, such as mine, must overcome.
Work-family balance challenges for women
However, most of my challenges came later in life when I realized that the modern workplace, especially in the US, is not well suited to support balancing the responsibilities of an ambitious career with those of having a family.
Proud as I am of having worked my entire career in Oil and Gas, I must acknowledge that there are still many barriers to diversity and inclusion. Although we have made significant progress in the last decade, there is a continuous need for improvement.
There are, of course, many dimensions to diversity. There is diversity of thought, background, experience, ethnicity, age, gender; sexual orientation, and national origin to name a few. In this piece, I will focus on one topic related to diversity, specifically in energy companies: the adoption and implementation of corporate policies that support gender diversity.
Among the many different policies that support diversity, studies suggest that the two most important are parental, not maternity, leave and flexible work. These two policies are key to improving diversity, and without them, many other efforts may prove fruitless.
One of the many benefits of giving equal amount of paid time off to both women and men, is that it prevents women from being left behind by their male counterparts when they take time off work, after the birth or adoption of a child. Allowing a flexible work schedule, where employee’s performance is measured against deliverables and not against defined hours at a desk in a specific location, allows people of any gender to take care of their family needs, while still progressing their professional development.
Flexibility in the workplace
Furthermore, McKinsey’s 2020 Women in The Workplace study found that women have been disproportionally affected by the COVID crisis, and that the lack of flexibility in the workplace is one of the key reasons’ women are pushed out of the workforce.
It is especially important to note that these two policies have the most impact at a time in life that coincides with a career’s tipping point. Most professionals in their 30’s and 40’s receive demanding management roles while balancing the burden of raising a family and taking care of aging parents.
In most societies, women are still responsible for a large percentage of household duties. As a result, the absence of family-friendly policies that are equally applicable to both genders; perpetuates bias against women in the workplace and permit men to operate under lower expectations. Thus, forcing a large percentage of females to prioritize families and leave the workforce.
In this context, I believe that there are two types of companies in our industry; ones that have understood the need to support gender diversity and inclusion; and thus have begun implementing parental leave and flexible work; and those that publicly acknowledge that gender diversity is important but have done little to nothing to address it.
An urgent need to overcome gender biases
I have worked in companies in both groups. Now, I am fortunate to work for a company that not only has policies that place it in the first group; but has been caring and courageous to build a culture centered around diversity and inclusion. The difference that this has made in my personal and professional life is unparalleled.
Whereas before I constantly questioned if it was worth to keep pushing my career forward at the expense of my kids, my marriage, and my psychosocial health. I now feel confident that I can achieve my professional goals while caring adequately for myself and my family. It is, for this reason, I believe we must continue to push towards change. Besides, we must demand that companies in the second group start progressing towards a more forward-thinking and inclusive work environment.
Gender bias is a difficult subject to address. There is no metric or KPI that can be attached to “inclusion”. In many circumstances, the evidence of bias is subtle and can’t be directly confronted and eliminated. However, I believe that, as we continue to bring awareness, implementation of policies such as the ones described above; and especially as many more women reach top levels in different organizations, we will effect significant change.