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We need a change of attitude to unleash the potential of women in the energy sector

The Women in Energy Association (WONY) and Boston Consulting Group (BCG) published a brand new report examining the representation of women in the energy sector of Central and South-Eastern Europe. In this comprehensive study, we surveyed 4,000 participants from 85 major energy companies representing 10 countries and here is what we found!

After five years, we decided with BCG to publish an update of our 2018 report on gender diversity in the CEE-SEE energy sector and to be honest, I was hoping for a better result until the very last moment. Of course, I guessed that the COVID pandemic and the war in our neighbourhood probably didn’t have a positive effect on the situation of women in the sector, but I still hoped that this period full of crises would push the decision-makers to realise that now – more than ever – we need “women’s energies” as well as balanced and diverse management boards to make good and effective decisions in difficult circumstances. After all, studies already confirmed that companies with gender-diverse leadership perform better and recover quicker in crisis situations.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. According to our research, women are still underrepresented in the energy sector. Although CEE energy companies’ share of the female workforce increased by 2 percentage points to 28 per cent between 2018 and 2022, their share on company boards has decreased to 14 per cent. In practice, this means that a board of 10 people has rather one than two women. She certainly does not have an easy job. It wouldn’t be easy for anyone to be in her shoes. I think that a man probably wouldn’t feel comfortable in this situation either. I am certainly not implying that we want this. On the other hand, we need balanced decision-making bodies, because the decisions made by this board are significantly affecting the lives of all of us – women’s and men’s equally.

“It’s sad that we still need to prove why diversity is desirable, why it is worth including women in boards,” pointed out Zsófia Beck, Managing Director and Partner of BCG, which is the most important underlying problem for me as well. “We should finally accept the fact that women are just as talented, educated and hardworking as men. Thus, women attracted by the industry should be represented in a similar proportion at the top of the corporate ladder, if they are motivated and want to become leaders. We need to achieve this change of attitude, which will probably be related to the change of generations as well.”

There is a slight positive shift compared to the situation five years ago. Those already working in the industry, both men and women would encourage their daughters to work in the energy sector to a greater extent than in 2018 and it is also true that more young women are starting their careers in the energy industry. It would be nice to know that the mentoring programs that WONY and other like-minded organisations are working on for years to support the career of young women contribute to this small success.

The problem only comes later when we, women want to move up on the corporate ladder (if we even dare to think about this), as unfortunately our current research as well as our research from five years ago showed that we do not believe in ourselves that we are capable of becoming leaders. There is a problem with our self-confidence. So, we can’t just point at men, we have to work on ourselves too. And we need visible good examples. Women who are already in leadership positions have a huge role to play to show themselves and tell their own stories, thus inspiring other women to succeed.

Although, we can also point to men. I would have a hard time saying which comment annoyed me more: “A woman’s place is in the kitchen!” or “Most of the leading women have no children and are divorced.” Unbelievably, we received both comments in our current survey. So, it is true that we need to work on ourselves, but at the same time, the prejudices and attitudes of men should be changed, because they really limit the progress of women in the energy sector.

In the past years, many companies have introduced diversity policies, we also mention some good examples in our research. However, it seems like many companies have only drafted these policies but do not implement them in practice.

We shouldn’t forget about the positive trends that give us some hope. For example, the events of recent years are accelerating the energy transition. The decarbonisation push in the wake of high energy prices led to an increased focus on renewables, IT and artificial intelligence which provides more opportunities for women.

Another example is the increasing importance of ESG (Environmental, social and governance) criteria and the definition of equal opportunity standards. More opportunities became available for women through regulations and quotas, which have helped women get into leadership positions in several companies.

Not everyone agrees with the quota system, even within WONY it’s a debated topic. There are some of us who think that certain ratios must be enforced and that without the quota there will be no meaningful change, while others argue that the quota system is not necessary because they prefer to be selected based on their competencies not because they are women. However, we all agree that an unsuitable female leader selected because of a mandatory quota does more harm than good to our cause.

Returning to the research, one thing is for sure, although the male-centric image of the energy sector has somewhat decreased in the past five years, we still have a lot of work ahead of us to make it natural for women to participate in the management of energy companies. Attitude change, like many other things, requires both men and women. Let’s do it together!

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