How not to address gender inequality in the oil sector

Along with 40-50 other women, and 5 or so men, I attended the Women in Industry session at the World Petroleum Congress in Doha a couple of weeks ago. Speakers at the session were all in leadership positions in the industry, a couple from a technical engineering background, and others from a management perspective.

I have to admit that my main hope was for respite from being one of very few female delegates amongst the crowd of 5000 men attending the conference, and perhaps not to be singled out when asking a question as “the young female delegate in the room”. But still, I expected to listen to successful, driven women, giving pragmatic advice on how to succeed in the oil industry, and to meet some like-minded people in the audience.

Sadly, I was, on the whole, disappointed. The main themes of conversation centred around certain buzzwords- “dual-career couples”, “multi-speed careers”, and “work-life balance” for example. Main solutions to these issues were suggested as making compromises to suit your career and your children, and finding a supportive partner.

I was utterly taken aback when one of the speakers, who was introduced as the only woman on the board of directors at her company, explained how she had got to her position on the board. When her company was approached for acquisition by a larger, international company, they were asked why there wasn’t a woman on the board. The international oil company told the smaller company that they needed to show more gender equality amongst their board of the directors, and in direct response to this request to appoint a woman to the board, they appointed her.

She told this story with a sense of pride, and people in the room smiled as she finished her story; it was a clear success story of a woman using her gender to advance in the industry. Call me an idealist, but surely a woman being appointed to a leadership position simply because she’s a woman rather than due to her own merit, does not indicate a positive step in gender equality, but in fact the opposite. The reactions of those in the room and the evident lack of slight outrage in anybody but myself, were even more worrying.

The first comment on the presentations, made by an Indian woman who had worked in the industry for 30 years, ended with advice addressed at young women in the audience- “If there’s one thing I would tell you all to do, it would be to find yourselves a loving husband”.

While I did laugh along with others at her comment, I wondered how many of those in the audience were taking her advice to heart. I would pay good money to see a session for men which ended with similar advice; how would they react to being told that the best way to advance in your career was to find a good wife? I imagine most would assume it were a joke.

In fact, the comments and advice that I actually did appreciate would have been better aimed at the 5000 men who had, for the most part, not attended. Tips like realising that the corporate performance of teams was far superior if there was an equal balance of genders, or addressing gender equality at every level, rather than simply at graduate intake and then at the highest, most visible leadership level, and monitoring progress at every level.

At the start of the WPC, I was asked whether I found the idea of a session aimed solely at women patronising or not. By the end of this session, I didn’t find it patronising as much as I found it incredibly counter-productive to the aim of encouraging women to succeed in the industry on their own merit. Telling women that other women actually make good leaders is not going to change the male-domination in leadership in the sector. Nor is encouraging the stereotype that in order to succeed, women need a man standing by them, or appointing women simply because it looks good on record.

Instead, introducing men to the idea that women can add a new and beneficial perspective to their company would motivate companies far more, especially if it is backed up by clear commercial reasons. As Milton Friedman said, the business of business is business, and that is not going to change anytime soon.

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