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Women in leadership: enablers and barriers to success

September 2023

Who leads the energy sector matters. Whatever device you’re reading this article on, it was enabled by this sector and the decisions of its leaders.

Although the media spotlight has been dominated by issues such as the war in Ukraine and ongoing economic uncertainty, diversity remains rooted in the public consciousness. Partly this has been driven by the increasing focus on and awareness of social issues but there is also an increasing volume of disclosure obligations to consider — such as UK companies with more than 250 employees having to report on their gender pay gap once a year.

Such requirements are likely to shine an important light on persistent disparities in the energy sector. For example, wages for women employees are almost 20% lower, according to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) . And it’s not just about salaries either. The IEA also found that there are an average 76% fewer women than men working in the sector, compared to the average 8% gap seen in the workforce as a whole.

So, what are the problems that continue to prevent more women from advancing into the senior leadership ranks? What are the barriers that lie in their way and how can we empower and retain the full population of high potential leaders in this sector?

To help answer these questions, Spencer Stuart teamed up with The Hawthorn Club, an international network for executive women in the energy industry. Our online survey of Hawthorn Club members sought to uncover the barriers they have faced on their way to the top and identify ways to help propel women’s careers forward. Here’s what we found out.

Positive momentum

The good news is that invisible barriers experienced by women have been reducing in Hawthorn Club member organisations. There is still room to go, of course. For example, a third (33%) of respondents would place a significantly stronger focus on inclusion if they were in the CEO’s seat. Another third (31%) felt that they would place still a bit more focus on inclusion.

Despite progress being made, it's important to stress that all of the Hawthorn Club women surveyed or interviewed have experienced invisible barriers and constraints to their leadership. These include prove-it-again bias, where you have to prove yourself over and over again to get the same recognition as others. Another is tightrope bias, whereby women find themselves having to walk a tightrope to balance unspoken expectations to be feminine and deferential, yet still achieve results.

Then there’s the maternal wall — which is rooted in diminished perceptions of capacity or commitment after having children — and the tug of war bias, which refers to the difficulty of supporting other women since it may be constructed as favouritism. And finally, there are the hidden additional responsibilities, those diversity/equity/inclusion tasks or human resources work that isn’t part of job description. All of these biases inhibit women’s effectiveness and engagement at work, and diminish the organisation’s efforts towards becoming more inclusive towards all employees.

A path to retention and engagement

Where success is evaluated fairly and unique strengths are recognised, we found that women surveyed showed a significantly higher intent to remain at the organisation. In addition, our survey identified four important ways for organisations in the energy sector to retain and engage women leaders. These were:

  1. Impact. The ability to create change and get my ideas heard.
  2. Purpose. Clear company and/or role purpose.
  3. Support. A supportive and inclusive direct manager with accountability for their behaviour towards employees.
  4. Fairness. Equal pay, open compensation frameworks and fair performance calibration.

When it comes to leadership style, we found that certain motivations are most common in this group. Understanding the drivers of women in this industry can help organisations facilitate retention of women in the sector. The drivers include: determination to succeed, readiness to assume command, desire to collaborate and ambition to positively impact on society and the global community.

Our survey respondents also showed a strong focus on both results and purpose — the women surveyed reported experiencing a constructive tension between connection and community, as well as drive and determination. The purpose and larger impact of the work is a core driver for many that feeds into the determination seen in this group. This because in an industry that has historically shown little openness for difference, succeeding in executive roles requires a combination of commitment to the cause as well as readiness to challenge and focus.

No time to waste

At a time when renewable energy transitions demand fresh thinking and new solutions, all hands are needed on deck. Having greater diversity and more women in leadership positions will enable companies to find new ways to solve problems and create new products, unlock fresh opportunities and enhance their services.

From net zero to increasing cost pressures, geopolitical turbulence to rising customer expectations, the sector’s landscape is being reshaped by an evolving blend of challenges large and small. Addressing these issues isn’t easy. It requires the best and brightest and a diverse range of perspectives and insights to be available.

In other words, if ever the energy sector needed more women at decision-making tables, it is now.