The danger of doing nothing

By Fawaz (Fuzzy) Bitar, IOGP chair and SVP HSE and carbon, bp

International Women’s Day is a great chance to celebrate my mother, wife, sister, daughter and all the women that have made a difference in my life. But for reasons I hope will become clear, I’m starting with a story about my Dad.

We were always close and, when I was young, he guided me through life’s challenges. One of the things he used to say to me was that old quote: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

I only later learned it dates back centuries – and when he said that, my Dad had something very specific on his mind. But it’s an idea that can apply to many different situations and I think there’s an important lesson there for how we treat others and view difference.  It is about taking action and making a stand for what is right.

Our industry’s challenge

This is where International Women’s Day comes into the story. When it comes to gender equality, we know society has a problem – and our industry is no exception. Women make up more than half of the population. But their representation in the energy sector – particularly in leadership positions – is nowhere near that. A study last year by the advocacy group Powerful Women, in conjunction with PwC, found that women occupied around a fifth of board seats of UK energy companies – a welcome increase on previous years but still a long way to go. Meanwhile, more than a third of the country’s top energy companies had no women on their boards at all.

Improving D&I – including female representation at all levels – has been on the industry’s agenda for a while, in some cases a decade or more. As a sector, we’re acknowledging the problem – in fact, a recent survey of industry leaders showed there was strong agreement that a lack of diversity could impede our ability to manage future uncertainties. We’re also talking more about unconscious bias. But while we have seen some improvements, progress is slow, piecemeal and, often, reactive.

Even today, too many women in our industry have experienced non-inclusive and sometimes unacceptable behaviour. To be honest, I saw this in myself, and realized that I have unconscious biases, and that I needed to change.

Of course, the vast majority of people in our industry are well-intentioned and want to see female colleagues do well. But another finding from the IOGP survey of energy leaders was a widespread view that our sector lags behind others in this area. And there is an argument that our industry has not done enough to keep up with societal expectations.

The question is what do we do about it?

Valuing difference

I think we need a significant shift to how we view diversity, right across the industry. Ultimately, we need to get to a place where we don’t just talk about statistics, quotas or training. But where we truly value and celebrate difference.

This is something I know a little about. I am a Palestinian-Jordanian, born in Saudi Arabia and lived all over the world.  I came to boarding school in the UK at the age of 11, where I was noticeably different to the others.   So, I understand how hard it can be adjusting to new communities – or at least communities where you’re not in the majority.

While most of the time my experiences in education, work and beyond have been positive, there were times when I didn’t feel fully welcome.  This was uncomfortable – and I either felt left out or that I needed to present a different image of myself.  I wasn’t able to be my true self.

Taking a step back, I think that is where the problem lies: what tends to happen is the burden of responsibility is placed on the person who’s different to change – or at least to fit in.

In fact, it’s our collective duty and opportunity to welcome others. We all benefit from bringing in new people, with different perspectives and experiences. Aside from the moral imperative, there’s a clear business case too – a recent McKinsey report found that the relationship between diversity on executive teams and the likelihood of financial outperformance has strengthened over time. There’s plenty more detail in the report but my main takeaway from that, and my own experience is: the more diverse your teams are, the more successful they will be.

Everyone’s responsibility

Of course, leadership is crucial in making a difference. But I strongly believe that everyone has a role to play. We all have to take a strong stance – and I would ask everyone to do at least two things.

First, call out behaviour you know is wrong. If you see someone being discriminated against, treated differently or any inappropriate behaviour – you have to say so. We have to make a communal effort to correct improper behaviour. That might be hard to do but it should be easy to see.

Second, we have to tackle the behaviour we don’t see. We have known about unconscious bias for many years – and it is still an issue. Being aware of it means we can guard against it – but that takes deliberate action. So everyone should be asking themselves: Is the problem me and how can I be more inclusive?  This is something we all can and must do.

Taking a stand

Of course, there’s no single solution. For a problem as vast and complex as this, we’ll need to do many things – some individually, some collectively.

It is welcome that many oil and gas producers have developed their own policies and initiatives to improve female representation.  Under our recently appointed executive director Iman Hill, the IOGP is also launching a cross-industry effort to do more, working with other world class institutions, co-ordinating efforts and leveraging each other’s strengths.  I am excited to see where they take us.

The test of whether our industry gets this right is if – in years to come – we don’t even need to talk about the value of diversity because embracing difference will be embedded into our thinking – part of our industry’s DNA.

So in the run-up to International Women’s Day this year – whose theme is #ChooseToChallenge –  I was thinking again about that quote my dad taught me, about what happens when people don’t act. And as was so often the case, my Dad was right. Because the only way we can make a real difference to women in our industry is if we all take a stand.

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