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Inside our organizations, what’s the difference between a “priority” and a “value”?
It may seem like a semantic question. It isn’t. The difference is critical and key to making big changes happen. To make gender equality a reality — from the boardroom and C-suite to front-line employees — organizations need to shift their thinking around values.
Priorities can change at any time. Values do not. Values and beliefs drive culture and behaviors.
I’ve seen this cultural shift happen with another crucial workplace issue: safety. For 10 years, I worked as a safety executive in oil and gas companies. After years of devastating accidents and injuries, rapid improvements followed. An analyst said the industry was becoming one of the safest. Annual accident records show the turnaround continuing.
This happened over time because the industry changed its approach, making safety a value and not a priority. Total, a multinational energy conglomerate, puts it this way: “Safety is more than just a priority. It’s a core value and the basis of our strategy.” The American Petroleum Institute similarly described safety as a core value for the natural gas and oil industry. In making this shift, the industry began to ensure that safety was baked into every decision, at every level.
It’s time to do the same for gender equality across numerous industries, including oil and gas, where women make up only 15% of the workforce (and even less among higher-paid technical jobs).
I left my former work in energy safety culture to focus full time on rectifying this problem. The business incentives are clear. As McKinsey notes: “Research supports that diverse and inclusive teams tend to be more creative and innovative than homogenous groups.” Gender equality leads to greater psychological safety. And boosting women in the energy industry will also help advance efforts to protect the climate. Women on average place greater importance on the environment.
A few years ago, a group of oil and gas companies at the World Economic Forum issued a call to action to close the gender gap. My organization Pink Petro gathered stakeholders from across the sector to offer recommendations on how to achieve this, and I recently testified in Congress on this subject.
Here are some of the steps organizations within any industry can take to make gender equality a strategic value.
Leaders must demonstrate commitment to achieving gender equality in their organizations. If they genuinely make it a value, they’ll not only talk about it but show it through their behaviors. This includes surrounding themselves with gender-balanced and diverse teams; having equal numbers of women speak at meetings; giving credit to men and women equally for their ideas. The C-suite must set the example, and managers must mirror those efforts, making clear to employees in all departments that inclusion is a part of daily operations.
Measure, With Leading Indicators
To ensure change is happening, set specific goals and measure them, making the results visible to the rest of the organization. They can be aspirational but should start with realistic benchmarks. For example, a company with only 5% women in managerial positions should not be expected to reach 50% within one year.
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When setting these goals, it’s crucial to include leading indicators, not just lagging ones. As research done at Bentley University explains, lagging indicators measure what has happened; leading indicators predict what will happen. For safety in oil and gas, a leading indicator measures the daily behaviors that increase the risk of accidents or injuries. For tracking gender equity, insights from the World Economic Forum suggest three key leading indicators: recruiting, retention, and advancement rates. Begin by ensuring measurements around these indicators are already taking place, and set new goals that align with gender equality as an organizational value.
Build the Talent Pipeline
Businesses should invest in making sure children — both boys and girls — are taught skills that will build the jobs of the future. For energy companies, this means working with elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as colleges and universities, to develop STEM programs that attract equal numbers of girls and boys. And learning opportunities should carry all the way through people’s careers as well, through workplace training, mentoring, and coaching programs.
To instill gender equality as a value throughout a company, it’s important for organizations to tell the stories of women who have achieved leadership roles. Through acknowledging and discussing the barriers they had to overcome as well as the solutions to making those barriers disappear, new leaders can gain insights for creating better pathways for women.
It doesn’t happen overnight. But as the energy sector’s record with safety shows, big change can happen.