Oil’s Big Male-Dominated Event Asked to #LetWomenSpeak

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By Kelly Gilblom and Laura Blewitt

With assistance by Liam Denning

Originally published in Bloomberg

When one of the largest oil conferences in the Americas held a networking event to highlight “the prominent role women play” in the industry, the first speaker was a guy named Dan.

Dan handed over to Jack, who introduced a speech from Ryan, who then passed the microphone back to Jack. Eventually, Emma was able to get a word in.

To hear women do more than a quarter of the talking, you had to go 16 miles down the road from the CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference in central Houston to a separate event. It covered many of the same topics, but most of the speakers were female.

Energy executives at CERAWeek by IHS Markit in Houston on March 7.
Photographer: Tina Davis/Bloomberg

Twin oil conferences, separated by gender, are emblematic of an industry that’s had trouble bringing women into the fold and keeping them there. None of the major oil companies has ever had a female CEO and four-fifths of all workers in the sector are men, a ratio that places it behind the agriculture and manufacturing businesses.

“In an ideal world, the global reach of this industry would be matched by an equally diverse workforce,” Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said in a videotaped keynote address at the HERWorld conference on the western fringes of Houston. “Unfortunately, that’s not yet the case.”

Companies speak often about their efforts to bolster diversity, but haven’t come close to parity. New disclosures from the U.K. operations of Royal Dutch Shell Plc and BP Plc show that in many of their divisions, male employees get paid at least 20 percent more on average than women. They attributed the gap to a lack of females in senior positions.

To read a QuickTake explainer on the gender pay gap in the U.K., click here

CERAWeek, which started almost 40 years ago, is attended by just about every major oil-corporation CEO and mirrors the industry’s lack of diversity. More than 85 percent of the speakers at the conference this year were men, according to the event program.

Mind the Gap

Less than 2% of oil companies in North America and western Europe are led by a woman.

Attempts to make it more inclusive have hit stumbling blocks. The CERAWeek women’s networking event — where Exxon Mobil Corp. Vice President Emma Cochrane waited to speak until after IHS Markit Vice Chairman Dan Yergin, American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke — prompted complaints from some attendees.

“A man is speaking. He’s followed by another guy. #letwomenspeak,” tweeted Ellen Chang, a journalist at The Street.

The API, which organized the event, said Yergin and Zinke attended in order to “honor the contributions of women” to the industry.

“This is one of many events we support celebrating women in energy, and this year was one of the most widely attended,” API spokeswoman Sabrina Fang said by email. “We are actively engaged in building awareness about the high-paying and lifelong career opportunities” for women in the industry, she said.

Fixing the Gap

HERWorld was started in 2016 to celebrate International Women’s Day. Spearheading the work is Katie Mehnert, the founder of women’s energy organization Pink Petro, and a former employee of Shell and BP, where she focused on culture-change initiatives.

Pink Petro aims to fix the “systemic” gender gap in the industry by providing women with chances to network and learn more about the business. For example, it broadcasts HERWorld online, and sets up viewing parties at companies like Halliburton Co.

Mehnert said in an interview that the clash of schedules wasn’t intentional — she didn’t realize until after her conference had become well-established that it coincided with CERAWeek. The event attracts high-profile female speakers including Facebook’s Sandberg — who wrote a best-selling book about women in the workplace — but is barely a 10th the size of CERAWeek, based on attendance figures provided by spokespeople from both conferences.

Katie Mehnert of Pink Petro speaks at HERWorld in Houston
Fred Agho Photography/Pink Petro

The events happening at the same time means participants and members of the media have to choose between them. Over the summer Mehnert had discussions with CERAWeek’s organizer, IHS, about the possibility of teaming up to boost the attendance and visibility of both events. The talks didn’t result in a partnership, she said, without going into further details.

“We don’t let everyone in,” said James Rosenfield, senior vice president at IHS and co-chairman of CERAWeek, when asked why Pink Petro was not able to participate. “Some of our partners who are sponsoring and who are part of the whole thing here, expressed specifically they were concerned about that organization” drawing people away from CERAWeek.

IHS was doing its own work on behalf of women, Rosenfield said. The event gave free passes to a dinner focused on gender diversity to 100 representatives of the Women’s Energy Network, he said. IHS also made a “huge effort” to expand the roster of 86 female speakers at the conference, out of a total of 651.

HERWorld’s atmosphere was more casual than CERAWeek — with upbeat music and male attendees opting for slacks rather than suits — but the agenda was serious. Panels reflected the exact discussions that CERAWeek thrives on: the energy transition and technology.

Executives from Shell, Chevron Corp. and others passionately encouraged women to stick together, while also highlighting the scale of the challenge.

“We have to change the landscape very significantly from where it is today, where less than 20 percent of the jobs in oil and gas are occupied by women,” Gerbert Schoonman, Hess Corp.’s vice president of global production and Lean In Energy’s first male board member. “We have to work towards that equality. I know it’s going to be a longer journey.”