We Need More Women in the Energy Sector

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Diversity leads to innovation, and that’s what it will take to fight climate change

Originally published in Scientific American

Credit: Ruslan Dashinsky Getty Images

Climate change is one of the most monumental challenges of our time. But even as it draws increasing calls for action, one of the most important steps we can take still gets far too little attention.

To fight climate change, we need more women in the energy sector. Only 15 percent of employees in oil and gas are women, and that number shrinks further for higher-paying, technical jobs.

To understand why having more women in energy will advance this fight, and how to make it happen, we first need to take a fresh look at the fossil fuel industry, which supplies the majority of energy the United States consumes.

Despite popular beliefs to the contrary, most leaders in oil and gas do recognize the reality of climate change. And they want to do something about it. A survey by EY found that 93 percent of oil and gas executives believe climate change is real, and 67 percent say oil and gas companies want to and can be part of the solution.

These figures, and the industry’s commitment to reducing emissions, would jump further if there were more women executives at these companies. Yale reported recently that “on average, women are slightly more likely than men to be concerned about the environment and have stronger pro-climate opinions and beliefs.” And for years, some women in energy have been prominent voices calling for greater action.

But to play its part in tackling climate change, the oil and gas industry also needs innovation. It needs a constant influx of new ideas, systems, technologies and business structures.

The EY survey found that only 37 percent of oil and gas executives believe their companies are currently doing a good job combating climate change. Innovation could change that.

To create organizations in which innovation can thrive, the energy sector needs more women. As Stanford has reported, growing evidence shows that greater equality breeds innovation—including “the creation of new and potentially disruptive ideas, products, or services.”

This is true for all forms of diversity. The more different perspectives and life experiences people bring to boardrooms and work teams, the more new and creative ideas they come up with together.

I see this in action every day. And I see how far the traditional energy sector has to go. After a career in big oil, I left to launch my own company aimed at bringing more women into the sector. There are still far too many obstacles preventing women from entering the sector, and from reaching their full potential within it.

For starters, some people still have outdated—and, yes, sexist—understandings of what women are capable of. It was just a few years ago that a man I sat next to on a flight asked me, “What’s a pretty young lady like you doing in a dark, dangerous business like oil and gas?”

Comments like that are, fortunately, rare these days. But other big problems remain.

The sector is paying a deep price for its long-term failure to recruit and retain a diverse workforce. When other industries beefed up operations to establish talent pipelines into diverse communities, far too many energy companies didn’t.

We also need stronger STEM programs for young women, and increasing support for those programs from oil and gas companies.

My organization, Pink Petro, included these steps and more in a report listing recommendations to close the gender gap in oil and gas. And I launched Experience Energy to help energy companies and talented female candidates find each other.

To move forward, oil and gas companies also need to erase the negative perceptions many people have of the industry. The EY survey found that most executives agree the industry has failed to communicate an accurate picture to the public. And, the survey found, “less than a quarter of consumers believe most oil and gas companies have acknowledged that climate change is real.”

My husband, daughter and I have witnessed the devastation of climate change firsthand. We lost our home and my business in Hurricane Harvey. Throughout Houston, the energy capital of the world, most conversations around climate change revolve around big questions; a growing search for big, new ideas, and a desire to transition into new ways of operating. We talk a lot about how our most important resource is the workforce that can power us forward.

For big ideas to flourish and big actions to follow, people of all backgrounds must be at the table tackling these challenges together. It’s time all Americans see themselves represented among the decision makers at the companies that fuel our world.

Katie Mehnert is the founder of Pink Petro and Experience Energy. She is testifying before the House Energy Subcommittee on Wednesday, February 27.