Energy industry’s recruitment efforts highlight persistent challenges for women

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Originally published in the Houston Chronicle

By Erin Douglas, with assistance from Jordan Blum

A BP executive was riding first class on a flight between London and Houston when another passenger asked what a pretty thing like her was doing in a “dark and dangerous industry.”

“I pretty much went unhinged.”

Katie Mehnert, Founder and President of Pink Petro

The conversation inspired Mehnert to found Pink Petro, a media, networking and consulting company rolled into one with a mission to advance opportunities for and visibility of women in energy. It boasts of over 12,000 members, and its clients — including big players such as Conoco Phillips, ExxonMobil and Shell — pay Pink Petro as much as $100,000 a year to help them recruit and retain women.

Katie Mehnert, the founder of Pink Petro Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Houston.
Photo: Steve Gonzales, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Mehnert says the industry is improving. Recruiting and retaining women has increasingly become a key theme for the male-dominated industry, and there’s broad-based agreement that a continued lack of diversity is a problem. Industry leaders are now asking: How can energy companies find women, and why are they hardly represented in technical or high-ranking positions? How do they move up through the ranks, and why don’t they stay?

Bobby Spoden, site manager TechSpace (l. to r.), Katie Mehnert, the founder of Pink Petro and CEO Elaine Wyrick. Photo: Steve Gonzales, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

With an aging workforce, and concerns about a low-carbon future, companies are under pressure to get with the times. Studies have found that women are more concerned than men with the risk climate change poses, and the oil and gas industry often talks of recruitment challenges for skilled labor and young professionals.

Industry executives, speaking at recent conferences, or offering interviews to Texas Inc., say they’ve noticed a shift in the opportunities afforded to women in the industry in recent years. The industry has made strides on parental and family leave, they say, compared to the decades ago when they first started in the industry. Also, there are more internal mentorship strategies and networking groups specifically for women, particularly at larger listed corporations.

“I was a parent back in the day and it was very difficult,” said Lyn Beaty, senior VP of finance at Halliburton. “None of that existed.”

“So definitely, the business environment has moved leaps and bounds in terms of supporting parents.”

Lyn Beaty, Senior VP Of Fianance, Halliburton

Conferences and events are putting more emphasis on the problem as well, and participants are responding.

CERAWeek, hosted by IHSMarkit and one of the energy industry’s most prominent conferences in the world, added a dinnertime panel discussion on women in energy this year. It was previously an invite-only event. A spokesperson for IHSMarkit said they decided to make it public this year due to increased interest in the topic.

At a separate Houston event, attendance for Hart Energy’s Women in Energy luncheon increased by 78 percent, from 630 in its first year, 2018, to 1,125 this February, the hosting company said.

And at Pink Petro’s fourth “Her World” energy forum in March, the organization increased its attendance and online viewership between three locations (Houston, Denver and London) by more than double compared to four years ago when it first launched.

But where are the women?

Still, the numbers remain bleak. The oil and gas extraction industry’s makeup was more than 80 percent men in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the 2018 Oil and Gas Investor magazine’s 40 under 40 list, only three women were listed.

At CERAWeek, only 16 percent of speakers were women, a figure originally reported by Bloomberg.

Chevron’s CEO, Michael Wirth, speaking on a panel at the conference, said that part of the industry’s diversity problem is attributable to education.

“The reality is, in this country and in many other countries, the engineering schools have historically graduated more white men than they have women or people of color,” Wirth said.

“We’ve been working hard … to create a culture where women can succeed.”

Michael Wirth, CEO of Chevron

There’s only one major oil production company headed by a woman: Houston-based Occidental Petroleum, led by Vicki Hollub.

Yet, power generation companies do much better, boasting of more female chief executives than any other sector in the S&P 500. Patti Poppe, the chief executive of CMS Energy Corp. in Michigan, and others speaking at a women in energy panel at CERAWeek, theorized that the power industry may do better with recruitment of women because it’s service based and does not require as much relocation.

Women in the oil and gas industry who spoke with Texas Inc. agreed. Several noted that while women may be technically qualified, sometimes they do not have the in-the-field experience that functions as a prerequisite to higher positions in oil and gas companies.

“When you look at how leaders come up through the industry, it has been in some harsh environments. It requires re-locations and flexibility with family,” said Beaty of Halliburton. “That’s how leaders were earning their stripes.”

That will need to change if the oil and gas sector is serious about recruiting women, many said. Right now, many of the women in energy companies are in office roles, such as finance, human resources and other business-support positions. The share of oil industry women employed in these functions is 2.5 times their share in technical and field roles, a survey of major oil companies, produced in conjunction with the World Petroleum Congress, found.

Women are being regulated to business-support roles because other top positions are filled by men who spent a big chunk of their career completing unspoken prerequisites: working in remote locations, long hours and several re-locations.

But that also means women’s positions are often the first to go during a downturn, one senior woman leader explained at a recent seminar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

There’s no road map to the technical positions, either. Many pointed to a systemic lack of role models for women in top roles, even though mentorship has become a larger focus. Melody Boone Meyer, who was an executive at Chevron for many years, said she never had a woman superior.

Hollub, Occidental’s CEO, in an August interview with the Houston Chronicle, credited the women who pushed to take on these technical positions for pathing the way for her to be a CEO.

“The most important thing in our industry has been those many women … (who) were the first women to go out and work on platforms in the Gulf of Mexico and the first women decades ago to go out and work in the rough, scary north sea,” Hollub said. “Those were the true trailblazers.”

Tough on moms

The most difficult challenge for women in the industry, many said, was to balance their responsibilities as a mother and a business leader. Neither world is always friendly to a female executive: Sharon Paul, the senior vice president, chief human resources officer for Archrock, a natural gas contract compression services company headquartered in Houston, pointed out that she often felt left out by other mothers at the schools who were able to spend lots of time planning trips and events while she, working full time, could not.

“You want to be able to be the mom that shows up with doughnuts at the elementary school.”

Sharon Paul, Senior VP, CHief HR Officer/Archrock

“It took me the first 10 years of raising my kids to realize those aren’t the only ways to have great memories with your kids.”

But she sometimes also felt left out at work, in an industry where fishing trips, sporting events and golf outings are common networking activities. Recently, she’s noticed vendors and customers have begun to offer more gender-neutral entertainment packages.

Others agreed that the culture has been slower to adjust than perhaps the benefits.

“Some drop out to have a family, or they don’t want to be in some remote location,” said Myrtle Jones, senior vice president of tax at Halliburton. “We, as an industry, need to figure out how to accommodate those situations.”

Jones said that early in her career when she became pregnant, her boss assumed she would not come back to work after her maternity leave. Comparatively, those situations have come a long way: Now, many said, companies have begun to offer flexible work hours, internal women’s networking groups, and at Halliburton, even on-site daycare.

“Not every woman can afford a nanny,” Jones said. “Those types of things, like paternity leave, actually help women.”

Missing the mark

Even while energy companies may have a new focus on the number of women in their organizations, Poppe, of CMS Energy, pointed out at the CERAWeek panel that it also needs to have an intersectional approach. The energy industry remains largely white, and women of color are severely underrepresented.

Poppe reflected on a moment that made her realize as CEO that her company wasn’t doing enough. They released a photo of top women at their company to the press, and she felt proud that they had recruited so many talented women for their company. But the company faced immediate backlash for having only one woman of color in the photo.

“I missed the mark,” Poppe said, speaking about how after this incident, the company began more aggressive recruitment efforts of women of color. “We just had to decide to (recruit women of color). And, we didn’t have to compromise. We could pick talented, amazing women of color. We just had to decide to do it.”

Others spoke of the difficulty for the only woman in the room to advocate for herself in the face of uncomfortable situations and called upon male colleagues to not be complicit bystanders.

“We accept that bias in silence,” said Melody Boone Meyer, who was an executive at Chevron for many years and now heads a company that advocates for women in the energy industry. “(In situations of) blatant bias, male colleagues don’t speak up.”

As for the politics of gender diversity, many of the women said they did not identify as feminists, pointing to the political nature of the word or stating that they did not feel that they were treated differently because of their gender. And, the #MeToo era did not come up during any of the recent Houston events, nor did women discuss it in interviews. None complained about sexual harassment, or outright denied it happens more in energy than in other sectors. But the numbers tell a different story.

The oil and gas extraction industry had the highest rate of sexual harassment charges of any industry according to a December 2018 study by the University of Massachusetts. The study was based on over 46,000 sexual harassment charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between 2012 and 2016.

Poppe, of CMS Energy, and Boone Meyer, speaking in an interview after a panel at CERAWeek, said that the #MeToo era has, while perhaps not been an outright topic of conversation in the industry, caused a cultural shift. They said more men speak up and advocate for their colleagues who experience gender-based harassment or bias in the workplace than before.

“The moment has brought more awareness … and conversations to talk openly,” Poppe said.

Another topic largely absent from the discussion is pay disparity. But some companies are making strides internally, even if women aren’t outright discussing the issue at networking events. Fiona Wild, the vice president of sustainability and climate change for BHP, a minerals and oil and gas extraction company, said the company did pay adjustments for 1,000 employees after studying internal pay disparity.

BPH has also set a goal to achieve gender parity in the organization by 2025. “We have smashed open the idea that a certain type of person wants to work in this sector,” Wild said.

Boone-Meyer said this is a trend — many companies in the industry are looking across their corporations to remedy pay disparities.

“I wouldn’t say (pay disparity) is a big issue, but I would say the unconscious bias can lead to those issues,” Boone-Meyer said.

“Women are viewed as being ‘tested’ versus men are promoted.”

Melody Boone-Meyer, Board of Directors, BP plc and National Oilwell Varco

The more you know

A common sentiment of women in energy, from CERAWeek to Houston luncheons, is that there isn’t a bias: From disparities of pay, to representation, to power and position, women at the top of the industry often pinned blame on institutional or cultural factors, stating that they have never felt treated differently by their male colleagues because of their gender, or that they did not notice a bias.

At the Greater Houston Partnership’s “Rise to the Top” event, Dylan Gibbens, the chief executive officer of Trumbull Unmanned, an energy technology and data company, said, “you have to break your own glass ceiling.”

But often times, panelists at CERAWeek pointed out, it is difficult to be aware of how gender may be influencing decisions.

Emeliana Rice-Oxley, vice president of exploration at Petronas, a Malaysian oil and gas production company, said in one moment, she realized she had acted biased toward her own daughter: She had called her bossy as a child, a stereotypical insult for women who speak up or lead.

“(People think): ‘Because I’m not biased, I don’t need to do anything about it,’” Rice Oxley said. “You can have all the processes in the world, but we need to make sure women have a positive day-to-day experience.”

She said the most prevalent bias — and the most dangerous — is unconscious. It took a long time for her to realize why she kept being asked how she became successful in a male-dominated industry. She would answer: “Just know your stuff,” a bit annoyed that she kept getting the same question over and over.

But over time, as she learned more about the issues, she realized her own unconscious biases against other women and herself.

“As you learn more, you decide something needs to change,” Rice-Oxley said. “The disbelief turns to rage … to want to do something about it. Because gender bias is real.”

erin.douglas@chron.com

Twitter.com/erinmdouglas23

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Erin Douglas covers business for the Houston Chronicle and writes for Texas Inc., a weekly Monday insert dedicated to covering the most powerful business leaders in Texas. Erin is from Colorado, and she studied journalism and economics. Previously, she interned for Bloomberg and The Denver Post.