OPINION | It’s time to act on gender inequality — including in the ranks of Canada’s energy sector

This column is an opinion piece from Deborah Yedlin, a long-time CBC Calgary contributor who has worked as a columnist for both the Calgary Herald and the Globe and Mail and is the chancellor of the University of Calgary.

This year, International Women’s Day takes on a decidedly different hue. In addition to being the annual marker for evaluating where women have made progress in gaining equality (writ large) this past year, and the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the glaring and persistent inequities faced by women around the world.

Progress has been made, but the economic data tell us the road to gender equality remains a very long one. The aftermath of the global pandemic is telling an ugly story — it’s women who have borne the burden of the economic collapse of the last 12 months. For that reason, it’s been called a “she-secession.” 

According to a report published by RBC last week, almost 500,000 women who lost their jobs during the pandemic had not gone back to work by January of this year. Moreover, because many were in the hardest hit service sectors, which have seen significant disruption to their business models, the report says the work future for women in these sectors remains uncertain. 

The impact of this is to undo all the progress made in terms of gender equality, but also concerning is that it is happening to women at an important time in their professional careers, where experience gained today translates into development and advancement down the road. Either it takes longer, or now doesn’t happen at all.

This should concern all Canadians.

TransAlta Corp. CEO Dawn Farrell speaks to investors in 2014. She’s one of three women in the CEO slot in Canada’s energy sector — and she’s retiring at the end of the month. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

A 2017 study by McKinsey & Co. showed that if gender parity was narrowed, the increase in global gross domestic product could increase by $12 trillion US by 2025. In Canada, that number translated into $150 billion to Canadian GDP, with $21.3 billion into Alberta’s growth prospects.

And when we look at it on a sector-by-sector basis, we see some sectors doing better in terms of women in leadership positions and as directors — the utilities, communications and financial services sectors — but the gaps in the resource sector remain.

At this year’s CERAWeek, hosted by IHS Markit, there were more women in the spotlight, hosting or involved in panel discussions. But still not enough — not 50 per cent. And precious few were in the chief executive slot. That’s not a slight on IHS, rather a reflection of the ongoing story of the under-representation of women in the energy sector.

Vicki Holub is at the helm of Occidental Petroleum, but she stands alone as the CEO of a major oil and gas company in North America. The situation is better for the pipeline and utilities sectors — as pointed out by Maria Pope, CEO of Portland General Electric — which tend to do better terms of gender representation at the board and executive levels.  

And we see it in Canada in both contexts.

Last Wednesday, TransAlta’s CEO Dawn Farrell held her final quarterly earnings call with analysts and investors. Farrell retires at the end of this month, which means there are but two women in the CEO slot in Canada’s energy sector remaining: Nancy Southern at ATCO and Sue Riddell Rose at Paramount Resources.

Those numbers are not out of line with the sixth annual diversity study published last fall by Osler, the Toronto-based law firm.

Once again, the study showed the energy, mining and energy services sectors occupying the lowest three rungs in terms of women in executive leadership positions or as directors of companies. 

If there is one thing the pandemic has changed forever, it’s the long-held perception that working from home means nothing gets done, Yedlin writes. (Submitted by Sandy Mangat)

In the oil and gas sector, 12 per cent of executive level positions and 18 per cent of board seats are held by women, compared with 27 per cent in executive positions and 30 per cent of board seats in the utility sector. The energy services sector fares the worst, with 14 per cent in board positions and 12 per cent for executive positions.

Last Friday, Amsterdam-based Equileap released its global gender equity study — with the sole Canadian energy company making the top 10 list being Enbridge. But overall, Canada lags on measures including senior executive and board level representation, pay equity, flexible work options and commitment to women’s empowerment, coming in 10th spot of 14 countries in the sample size.

The point is, as Gavin Rennick, vice-president of human resources at Schlumberger, said in a CERAWeek panel last Friday, that none of this works if it isn’t owned by the entire organization, from the top down; this isn’t the sole responsibility of the human resources department. Without more women as role models in senior positions, it’s hard to attract and retain the next generation of female talent that also builds the advancement pipeline, and everyone needs to be part of that.

We need to fix workplaces, not women. The data shows women and men enter the workforce at the same rates, but there is a bifurcation in the level of advancement. We need to be honest in looking for the answer as to why more than 50 per cent of degree holders are women and yet hold a small fraction of leadership positions.

If there is one thing the pandemic has changed forever, it’s the long-held perception that working from home (WFH) means nothing gets done. While productivity has suffered as the pandemic has dragged on and people are tired of the exclusively remote world, there is no doubt workplace flexibility is here to stay.

And for women — who continue to bear the lion’s share of household duties — this optionality is long overdue.

“The rewards of flexible work will outweigh the risks,” said Rhonda Morris, vice-president and chief human resources officer at Chevron.

The challenge is ensuring those who do work remotely are not left behind from the perspective of advancement opportunities. Citing a study done by Stanford’s Nicholas Bloom, Morris said people working remotely are promoted at half the rate, which means it’s primarily working women who are also parents being left behind.

There is a tendency to take stock on International Women’s Day of how women are represented and treated in the workplace, be it in for-profit or not-for-profit organizations. But it needs to happen every day, not just once a year. The reality is, as was mentioned frequently at CERAWeek, investments are increasingly being made on the basis of ESG metrics — environmental, social and governance. The gender-equity lens falls squarely into that new investment paradigm and it’s here to stay. It’s time to pay attention and to act, not offer lip service.

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