Anna McDowell Mechanical Engineer

Why are there not more women in the energy sector?

A couple of decades ago if I went to the doctors for whatever ailment, odds on my GP, or my hospital doctor, would be a man. Roll the clock forward to 2015 and the position has changed entirely with my local surgery on the Black Isle being almost exclusively staffed by women.

More girls than boys now leave school to study medicine and nobody blinks an eye to meet a female consultant. There has been a paradigm shift in the way the medical profession is perceived as a career open to all, and as a consequence it is increasingly gender neutral.

Unfortunately not all professions are the same, and the energy sector has a long way to go. The numbers are stark – a report produced recently by PwC entitled Igniting Change: building the pipeline of female leaders in energy stated that of the top 100 UK-headquartered energy companies (including oil and gas, power and renewables), 61 percent have no women on their board, and only five percent of executive board seats are held by women.

The report was commissioned by POWERful Women, an organisation established by Baroness Verma and MP Laura Sandys in 2014 to advance the professional growth and leadership development of women across the UK’s energy sectors.

If we measure the report’s findings against the Scottish Government’s target to have 50/50 gender balance on boards by 2020, we can see energy companies have a hill to climb, however they are cautiously optimistic that change is happening.

Earlier this month I attended the Scottish Energy Advisory Board – a bi-annual meeting which brings together ministers, the energy industry and other relevant bodies to discuss the main challenges facing the energy sector in Scotland.

The meeting took place in Aberdeen, and was the first opportunity for Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to co-chair the Board and underscore her own personal commitment to the sector.

In a wide-ranging discussion we covered the work of the Oil and Gas Task Force and security of supply, topics which have been high on the news agenda in recent weeks, and then moved on to this very subject – the balance (or rather the lack of) of women in senior positions in the energy sector.

It did of course produce some wry smiles, as the First Minister looked around the room at a table populated predominantly by middle aged men; but there was no doubting industry’s commitment to address the challenge.

One issue, in my view, is that many teenage girls still do not see the energy sector as a place to build a career. The Scottish Government, with strong support from HIE over the past 15 years, has done tremendous work in increasing the profile of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) – yet still 72 percent of pupils who sit Higher physics are boys, with many of the girls who take the topic using it as a route to medicine and veterinary science, rather than a career in industry. At grass roots, we need to continue promoting positive energy career choices to girls and young women in secondary and tertiary education – and Skills Development Scotland of course has this at the top of their agenda.

There is too, perhaps, the misconception that jobs in energy equate to engineering roles, but of course this is not the case. Any business today relies on multi-disciplinary teams and energy is no different, with companies including financial analysts, computer modellers, environmental scientists and geologist, to name just a few relevant disciplines. Indeed the Energy Team in HIE is staffed with economists, geographers, political scientists, European law specialists, as well as the occasional engineer and business analyst, with woman outnumbering men by two to one.

However HIE’s energy gender balance is unusual, so the question the First Minister posed is what can we, as an industry and a country firmly promoting energy as one of our prime motors of economic growth, do to ensure its leadership and workforce is more representative of the population as a whole?

Angela Constance, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, has said: “You can’t be what you can’t see” – and we need to get more stories out there of women having interesting and successful careers in renewables, oil and gas. Networking organisations such as WIRES (Women in Renewable Energy in Scotland) already play a vital role in actively promoting positive messages and providing mentors to the new leaders of tomorrow, and this can only be a good thing.

According to Lindsay Leask, vice-chair of WIRES and Senior Policy Manager, Offshore Renewables, at trade body Scottish Renewables, the renewable sector has better gender balance than oil and gas, yet just 26 per cent of Scotland’s renewable energy workforce is female.
“I think we’ve still got a long way to go,” Leask says. “The good news is that the Igniting Change report finds we are looking at an entirely fixable problem.

“It proposes actions for CEOs, HR departments, senior management and women themselves. Targets are one tool, but broader cultural shifts are equally important to achieve these numbers. The research found the most important action a CEO can take is to simply lead by example, create a diverse team and challenge bias,” Leask concludes.

This view certainly matches the opinions the First Minister heard at Scottish Energy Advisory Board.

There was a broad consensus on the need to drive change from the board level down – with affirmative action and personal leadership to the fore. In other words, to “be the change you wish to see..’

This change will need to happen soon if Scotland is the meet it’s 2020 ambitions and I hope that, as we have seen in other competitive fields, such as medicine and, dare I say it, politics, the more women we see at the top, the more it becomes the norm.

As our own First Minister said on appointing her cabinet of five men and five women in November last year: “The cabinet line-up is a clear demonstration that this government will work hard in all areas to promote women, to create gender equality and it sends out a strong message that the business of redressing the gender balance in public life starts right here in government.”

Leadership, as Nicola Sturgeon has shown, comes from the front.