Parity in Progress: A New Future for Women in Energy

By Katie Mehnert

Women’s rights have been front and centre in recent weeks, given the current political climate. But movement toward change has been brewing for some time. And while there’s still a ways to go to reach parity, there are some notable signs of progress in some unexpected places – namely, the global oil and gas industry.


On Jan. 21 of this year, women grabbed the world’s attention in a very big way.

They filled the streets of cities around the world – everywhere from Washington, DC, to Antarctica – in what began as a way to protest the incoming American president.

It became a protest of some of the most vexing issues plaguing women today. And there are quite a few:

Sexual assault. Reproductive rights. The gender pay gap.

The media has hailed it the start of a movement, the beginning of the resistance. But those of us who have been on the inside know the momentum has been brewing for some time. What gained a national stage on Jan. 21 has been slowly working its way through major industries, political parties and institutions – a war for equality waged methodically, deliberately and persistently.

The good news: It’s working. While universal gender equality still eludes us, there is notable progress to celebrate – and I’m happy to report it’s happening in an industry close to my heart: the traditionally male-dominated world of oil and gas.

I am intimately familiar with the struggles of women working in a male-dominated industry. For most of my career, I have been one.

I believe women are the future of the industry and they play a very important role in shaping our industry story.


As a rising executive in the oil and gas industry, I worked in a variety of roles for a variety of companies, including industry giants Shell and BP. That experience inspired me to create Pink Petro, a global social media and learning platform for female professionals in the energy industry, because I believe women are the future of the industry and they play a very important role in shaping our industry story.

I also believe the industry has a lot of work to do to when it comes to giving women equal opportunities. According to the World Economic Forum, “the oil and gas industry, despite making progress in the recent past, continues to miss out on the full benefits of a diverse workforce.”

Women comprise less than 20% of the oil and gas industry’s global workforce. And the industry boasts the largest controlled pay gap, with women making roughly 7% less than men for the same job, according to a recent study from Payscale.1

Even more upsetting: Another study cited by The New York Times2 found that when women enter historically male-dominated fields, pay declines. As Paula England, a sociology professor at New York University, put it: “[Once a woman starts doing a job], it just doesn’t look like it’s as important to the bottom line or requires as much skill…Gender bias sneaks into those decisions.”

So companies and organisations around the world have to be proactive in the fight against bias to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce – of which there are many.

An article in the Harvard Business Review3 outlines research that quantifies those benefits in hard numbers: At companies where the leadership team is equipped with both inherent diversity (traits you are born with, such as gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation) and acquired diversity (traits you gain from experience), employees are 45% more likely to report that their firm’s market share grew over the previous year, and 70% more likely to report that the firm captured a new market.

In an increasingly global and competitive world, an advantage like that cannot be overstated.

That’s why, last year, the World Economic Forum issued a call to action to the global oil and gas industry,4 which was signed off on and endorsed by 22 CEOs. The initiative takes a broader look at efforts that have begun piecemeal at various companies around the world to not only attract, develop and retain women, but also “to remove barriers that may currently hinder or discourage women from rising through the ranks into leadership roles”, according to the official call to action.

What are some of those barriers?

According to an NES Global Talent survey5 examining the gender talent gap, 75% of women say they feel welcome working in the oil and gas industry. But 45% say they do not feel they get the same recognition as their male colleagues.

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About 95% said mentors were important for career advancement, yet 42% said they were neither a mentor nor a mentee.

And less than half – about 46% – say their companies provide them with adequate benefits to meet the needs of themselves and their families, such as child care, flexible work hours or telecommuting.

In short, energy industry leaders have work to do to bring women into the fold, and for many, it is well underway.

GE, for one, has earned recognition by Working Mother magazine6 as one of the best companies for working moms in the United States. The company has created a Leadership Practices program that encourages female executives to evaluate their careers and strategise next steps. GE also puts a priority on mentorship, offering a formal mentoring program through its Women’s Network and using several development initiatives to show women at the company how to succeed at work and stay sane at home.

75% of women say they feel welcome working in the oil and gas industry. But 45% say they do not feel they get the same recognition as their male colleagues. 


On top of all that, paid parental leave at GE lasts 18 weeks – a significant benefit in the United States, where paid maternity leave is still not mandated by law.

Shell is another energy industry giant earning public praise for its treatment of women. It earned the distinction of being the only oil and gas company listed in The Times Top 50 Employers for Women in 2015.

The company has created two programs for women – the Women’s Career Development Programme and Senior Women Connect – designed to support and cultivate its female leaders.

And, just recently Shell announced that beginning Jan. 1 2018 it will offer at least 16 weeks paid maternity leave to its female employees worldwide. The policy will particularly boost benefits for employees in 45 countries where there are only limited paid or unpaid maternity leave benefits, such as in the United States. Shell also has a new eight week paid parental leave policy that is gender neutral.

The Women’s Career Development Programme takes place over the course of 14 weeks and invites women to attend a mix of face-to-face and virtual sessions that allow them to work through issues they’ve faced in the workplace, such as learning an effective way to say no and ensuring they are not overstretched.

Senior Women Connect lasts even longer and focuses on upper-level female employees. Again, it’s about building a network while working through various challenges, developing leadership abilities and advancing their careers.

Shell also invests in female and minority entrepreneurs. It has committed to achieving Billion Dollar Roundtable status,7 a designation for companies that spend at least $1 billion with minority and women-owned suppliers. Shell is also a founding member of Pink Petro, opting to support a niche community for women aimed at meeting the needs of younger generations in the industry.

Halliburton is another founding member of Pink Petro. That commitment complements the company’s broader strategy of targeting women in the early stages of the talent pipeline. Halliburton hosts workshops and competitions aimed at high school and college students to start introducing them to the discipline while turning them on to the brand.

At ExxonMobil, in addition to the company’s Women’s Interest Network, which promotes female leadership development, the company is focusing on transparency, lifting the veil that typically covers employee diversity stats and publishing its gender breakdown on its public website.8

Likewise, Schlumberger has been working to address gender balance since 1994,9 when the company set a goal to have women comprise 15% of the workforce by 2015. The organisation met that goal despite challenging market conditions. Since 2007, the company also formed a women’s network that is 6,000 strong today.

All of this is good news for women in energy. But we’re not done yet – not even close.

As I mentioned above, 22 CEOs have endorsed the World Economic Forum’s call to action on women in the oil and gas industry, but what does that really mean? Those CEOs need to outline in detail their plans for fixing the gender gap within their own organisations, set metrics against which their success should be measured and begin a consistent process of reporting on the results.

The lessons learned could create a blueprint for broad-based change throughout the entire industry.

Our industry also needs to focus on highlighting the successful women we’ve already got in the pipeline. Talk about them on corporate websites. Pitch them to media outlets for in-depth profiles. Invite them to speak on panels and deliver keynote addresses. As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see. Let’s show women and girls everywhere what powerful women in the energy industry are doing.

It has been proven time and time again how valuable mentors are in career advancement, so let’s create more opportunities for women to connect – not just in their own companies but across the industry. And don’t just look for one; become one.


It has been proven time and time again how valuable mentors are in career advancement, so let’s create more opportunities for women to connect – not just in their own companies but across the industry. And don’t just look for one; become one. The chain of support has to start somewhere – let it start with you. April Sharr, former water management leader at Baker Hughes turned entrepreneur during the recent downturn, did just that. Sharr formed MentHER.me10 to meet the rising needs of industry women and companies to address the mentoring gap.

On International Women’s Day, March 8, Pink Petro launched Experience Energy,an online jobs platform focused on creating a diverse energy workforce. The site offers resources for both job seekers and employers from around the world.

The platform is the next step in the evolution of Pink Petro, which I started not just just to help women, butthe energy industry as a whole. I wanted to give women the tools and connections they need to succeed, and to give companies the access and insight necessary to transform their organisations from within.

What you saw on Jan. 21 was not the beginning. It was a catalyst. Let’s capitalise on that.

Featured Image: Demonstrators at the Women’s March in Washington, DC, Saturday January 21, 2017 © Timothy Fadek for WIRED



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Katie Mehnert is the Chief Everything Officer of Pink Petro™, the global community and career resource aimed at disrupting the energy gender gap. Pink Petro has members in 31+ countries and over 500 companies. Katie has 19 years of delivering change, learning, and culture transformations. She has held global leadership roles with BP and Shell in health and safety during periods of financial crisis, spills, divestment, and globalisation. A 40 under 40 honoree, she is a graduate of Louisiana State University in Communications, Rice University’s Executive Energy program and The Center for Houston’s Future.



The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.