Throughout all the years women have been in the workforce, they have faced numerous challenges, including balancing familial and professional responsibilities. On top of that, they’ve been up against bias and preconceived notions about what a woman can and can’t do when it comes to work.
Just how far have we come? As of 2020, women represented almost half of the workforce—47 percent—according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In many sectors, women continue to make strides and a greater impact in the fields they participate in. And while women are represented in all sectors, they gravitate toward some industries more than others.
Looking more closely at the natural resources sector in particular, women make up only 15 percent of the oil and gas industry in the U.S. That’s a pretty slim statistic. As Cecilia Tam, principal policy analyst with the International Energy Agency writes in a 2018 commentary, “The energy sector remains one of the least gender-diverse sectors in the economy, despite recent efforts to promote and encourage women’s participation.” And she went on to add, “This is especially important given the role that women can often play as key drivers of innovative and inclusive solutions.”
With the energy sector shifting from fossil fuels to alternate forms of power, innovation is critical, so it’s time for women to take on a larger role. As Hillary Clinton said, “Women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world.”
So the question is, what is keeping this number so low, and what can be done to change the industry to make it more appealing to women?
The quick answer to this question could be the nature of the work. Often it takes place in more remote areas that require extensive travel, and there is also the inherent risk of the work that comes from resource extraction—but those are not the leading reasons. There’s something else at play that creates a barrier for women entering and pursuing careers in this sector.
It’s not a stretch to say that the natural resources sector as a whole has been traditionally composed of mostly male workers. And the majority of women who do work in this space are more often than not in administration roles rather than in the actual mines or on the rigs at sea. But that long-lasting trend may be slowly starting to change.
More companies in natural resources are taking positive steps to include women in a diverse workforce. For example, in Australia, the female workforce in mining has reached 18 percent, while in Spain it’s about 8 percent. In Canada, women in mining comprise around 15 percent of the workforce, with Chile at 7.5 percent. And while these may not seem very high, they are much higher than 0 percent, which was the case not that long ago. Women’s participation in mining in Mexico, for instance, is now at 16 percent where there was no participation in 2008.
The issues at the heart of the low participation rate of women in the natural resources sector are hardly surprising: the struggle for wage equality, work-life balance, opportunities to advance, and exposure to new learning prospects. These factors, of course, happen to be pretty much identical to what many men look for in a career in resources. One main difference, however, is in how women and men experience these challenges.
In a CNBC article, Katie Menhart, CEO of Pink Petro, a recruiting company for the energy industry that focuses on hiring women, talks about two of the key obstacles to hiring more women to work in the industry. The first is convincing women to apply to what is viewed as a male-dominated industry. Then, once they do get hired for the work, they face limited opportunities to advance.
To help solve for the first issue, Pink Petro focuses on capturing women’s attention. Menhart, who also has extensive experience in the industry, says there’s a need to describe what it all looks like for women on the job. “It’s a story that nobody really understands,” she says. “I’ve flown the world, I’ve seen things I never would have believed.”
For the second issue of helping women advance, she acknowledges the challenge. “The biggest barrier women face in the industry is visibility and access to what opportunities exist.”
That is an internal cultural issue that each company has to face. Lori Freeman, a long-tenured general manager for surface engineering for Deepwater Gulf of Mexico, a Shell rig, says that the company has made a genuine effort to help all employees recognize their biases. “I come in, I do my job, I work hard, I want to learn, I like to help people, and because of that, I feel heard,” says Freeman.
Advocacy organizations in the industry are doing their part as well, like Women In Mining USA. The organization has chapters in a growing number of states, run by volunteers, to create networking and mentorship opportunities for mining students and women and men dedicated to pushing for inclusivity.
And if there are any questions about why it’s important to have women as part of the workforce, multiple studies state that you are losing out if women are not well represented among your employees. Consulting firm McKinsey & Company notes the following in an article about including women in mining: “In one data set, diverse teams were reported to be more productive (11 percent higher adherence to production schedules) and have safer practices (67 percent lower total recordable injury frequency).”
In that same report, McKinsey & Company also discusses why women leave the mining industry. “There is a sense that opportunities for operational experience and frontline mentorship are created proactively for men, while women are expected to have acquired frontline experience ‘elsewhere’ in order to qualify for advanced technical and leadership roles.”
This parallels the barriers Menhart describes in oil extraction and is something that requires intention, planning, and resources on the part of these companies to resolve.
But a challenge to all this may be built into the industry itself. The natural resources sector is prone to boom and bust cycles, and that can make it hard to plan for the long term. While there is recognition that change is needed to help develop a pipeline of future employees, there is always that pressure of the next change in price or production that may delay or derail any new initiatives.
For companies operating in natural resources, long-term positive change will start with the companies in the sector who make it a priority to diversify and create environments that actively promote including women in their workforce. As Denise Morrison, former president and CEO of the Campbell Soup Company, famously said: “The path to diversity begins with supporting, mentoring, and sponsoring diverse women and men to become leaders and entrepreneurs.”
The bottom line for most sectors, including natural resources, is that the workforce is aging, and as the pool of eligible employees shrinks, it will become even more important to encourage women to take jobs in the sector. Not only will companies benefit from stable numbers of workers, they will also gain boosts in productivity, creativity, and safety that can help them stay relevant and competitive.