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Why women could save the oil sands

Diversity, done right, isn’t just a buzzword – it’s a strategic asset

Dec 24, 2012

by Alix Kemp

Illustration Pierre-Paul Pariseau

For the oil sands industry, all is not going according to plan.

For Enbridge and TransCanada, projects to ship crude out of the province via the proposed Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines have faced major delays due to opposition in B.C. and the U.S. Even in Alberta, public perception of the oil and gas industry took a hit with news of pipeline spills in the province. Then in September, two weeks after Alberta introduced new limits on pollution for the oil sands, a report from Shell found that those limits are likely to be exceeded in short order. And that’s in addition to growing labour shortages.

All of those problems, however, share a common solution, and it might not be what most people would expect. It has nothing to do with getting more young people into trade school programs, improving relationships with aboriginal groups or coming up with better environmental protections, although it could achieve all of those things. What oil sands companies need to do is hire more women.

In Canada’s mining and oil and gas industry, women make up 19 per cent of the labour force, 12 per cent of senior executives, six per cent of board directors, and just one per cent of presidents and CEOs. Those numbers need to increase, and not just because gender equality makes people feel good. Studies have long pointed to differences in how men and women think. Karen Hughes, a University of Alberta professor cross-appointed to the sociology department and the School of Business, says research bears out the idea that women and men tend to have different approaches to business. “On average, women do bring some different competencies, skills and possibly approaches, compared to the way men traditionally have managed companies,” she says.

“As women we bring in more diverse opinions and throw the net wider in terms of ideas.” –Stephanie Sterling, vice-president, Shell Canada

A 2010 study in Science found that, on average, groups with more women tend to be collectively smarter than those with fewer, while factors such as the individual intelligence of group members had relatively little impact. In the study, groups of between two and five participants were asked to complete a variety of tasks, from solving puzzles to planning strategy. Those with more women consistently performed better, even after accounting for other factors. Researchers found that women increased the group’s overall intelligence because female participants displayed more “social sensitivity,” which meant groups collaborated and shared ideas more, thus getting better results.

In general, Hughes says, women engage in more collaborative decision-making and pull in perspectives from a wider range of sources. But there are also some fundamental differences in how women approach problems. In the 1950s, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg presented children with a scenario in which a man’s wife is dying and he can’t afford the medicine to cure her. He asked if it would be moral to steal it. Boys overwhelmingly said, yes, stealing the medicine was justified. Girls, on the other hand, wanted to know more about the relationships between the man, his wife and the pharmacist selling the medication, and suggested he shouldn’t steal it because if he went to jail, he’d no longer be able to take care of his wife. As a result, Kohlberg surmised that the girls were incapable of moral reasoning, but in 1982, psychologist Carol Gilligan revisited the experiment. Girls, she argued, were perfectly capable of moral reasoning. They simply had a different approach to the problem, one that favoured co-operation and placed more value on relationships, rather than the boys’ blunt force solution of theft.

That approach, what Gilligan called the “different voice” of women, is one that’s essential to Alberta’s oil sands. For Stephanie Sterling, the vice-president of business and joint venture management at Shell Canada, the importance of gender in the oil and gas industry is clear. The company has made a concerted effort to recruit women, and while Sterling says part of that is simply because women represent an untapped source of labour, it’s also because women bring something essential to the business. “The oil sands in particular depend on innovation and new ideas, things that will help us improve performance as we move forward,” she says. “Diverse ideas come from diverse people, so we need to be able to bring in as much innovation as we can into our developments going forward. Women are a key part of that, if we’re going to bring in ideas that are different than what we may have thought before.”

That’s led Shell to develop a career development program aimed specifically at women entering senior leadership roles within the company, as well as a mentoring program that matches high-potential women with mentors who can help them reach those leadership positions.

Sterling says Lorraine Mitchelmore, Shell Canada’s president and CEO, is an effective role model who has inspired women to move up in the company. “It helps us to attract other women. I always argue that for a woman to believe that she has a career in a company, she needs to be able to see herself in senior roles. So it’s really important for us to be able to have Lorraine in her role, and other female peers on the leadership team.”

Not everyone is convinced. Heather Christie-Burns, president and COO of Angle Energy Inc., for one, isn’t buying the idea that women bring something unique to the job that’s a result of intrinsic gender differences. That unique female perspective, says Christie-Burns, is simply a product of the relatively short time that women have been a part of the industry. Because the oil and gas sector has traditionally been dominated by men, Christie-Burns says women who enter it may come to the executive suite through a less traditional route. That, she says, gives them a different take on the business. She would know, too, since she did something similar by co-founding Angle Energy in 2004 rather than trying to rise through the ranks of an established company.

But for Angle Energy, hiring more women is a purely practical move. “There is a need for workers, period,” Christie-Burns says, and women, like foreign workers and new graduates, are a recruitment opportunity for any growing oil and gas operation. “I don’t think trying to drive towards a 50-50 [gender] split necessarily makes sense, but from the perspective of getting the workforce you need, you should try to attract women.”

In Alberta, women make up roughly the same proportion of the labour force in mining and oil and gas extraction as in the rest of Canada. And while the number of women in the industry has increased over the past 25 years, that proportion has remained relatively constant. In the past, however, women have often been confined to “softer” roles in the industry, such as human resources. And while that’s still the case at the executive level for many companies, Sterling suggests it may be starting to change. “We’re seeing a lot more women in our operations ranks,” she says.

Still, women make up only 11 per cent of Shell’s Albian Sands operations. Some will say that’s par for the course. Change, after all, takes time, and we can hardly expect many women to make it to the executive suite when the proportion of entry level positions being filled by them is still just one in five. As that number improves, so too will the number of women in leadership roles. All that’s needed is time. Others, like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, argue that it’s women’s own priorities that are keeping them from the executive suite, as they put family before their careers. From the moment a woman starts thinking about having a child, Sandberg says, “she starts thinking about making room for that child…. And literally from that moment, she doesn’t raise her hand anymore, she doesn’t look for a promotion, she doesn’t take on the new project, she doesn’t say, ‘Me. I want to do that.’ ” It’s a prevalent theory that women are voluntarily “opting out” of the workforce before they can reach leadership positions.

Erin Leonty, the senior membership manager of Western Canada for Catalyst, an international organization dedicated to increasing gender diversity in the workplace, disagrees on both counts. The absence of women in leadership roles has nothing to with women opting out or being ambivalent about leadership positions, she says. A Catalyst study found that women desire leadership positions just as much as men, and children had no impact on their desire for a corner office.

It’s also not a case of simply needing more time, since despite increasing numbers of women working in corporations across Canada, the proportion of female board members hasn’t increased noticeably. “The old ‘give it time’ strategy has obviously been proven ineffective,” she says. “And sadly the [oil and gas] industry falls well below an already low average of female representation.” That’s important, she says, because Alberta and Canada are falling behind countries with more diverse workforces, and it’s their competitors who are benefiting. “Giving it time is really just going to set us back even further than we already are.”

So what would be the impact on the oil sands, exactly, of having more women in executive or board positions? That’s impossible to quantify, since after all, no two executives will approach a problem exactly the same way. But it’s telling that two of the loudest voices calling for a co-operative national energy strategy belong to women: Premier Alison Redford has been pushing for a conversation on the topic since she took office, and Mitchelmore is among the most vocal proponents of the idea in the business community.

While male-led oil sands companies like Cenovus and Suncor also support the initiative, Mitchelmore was the one to take the discussion to a national newspaper, partnering with the Financial Post and writing in an editorial that “The debate must be extended beyond governments and industry to include First Nations and the broader Canadian public.” Then again, one of the factors stalling the development of such a plan is the refusal of B.C. Premier Christy Clark to participate in that conversation. As Hughes points out, not all women approach management the same way, and there’s no rule that male executives can’t participate in collaborative, transformational leadership.

But there is one area in particular where women are already having a substantial impact on the oil sands: environmental management. Nicolette Stanley is an environmental co-ordinator at Shell’s Albian Sands, working as the team lead in waste, water and wildlife. Her team is predominantly female, she says, and she’s noticed that many women often find work in the environmental or aboriginal relations side of oil sands management more appealing. That’s likely because those fields emphasize collaboration with community stakeholders, an area where women excel.

While hiring more women won’t solve all the challenges businesses operating in the oil sands are facing, it’s clear that they could help mitigate many of them. From labour shortages to managing the environmental impact of the oil sands, Sterling says women have a lot to offer oil sands producers. “As women we tend to bring in more ideas, more diverse opinions, and throw the net wider in terms of what the ideas could be or what direction we could take. I like to think that means we get to a better solution at the end of the day.”


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3 Responses to Why women could save the oil sands

  1. Pingback: Why women could save the oil sands | Canada's top source for … | Oilsands Alberta Canada

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  3. Rickedy Rick says:

    A couple of schick-ups hardly means the oil sands are in peril. As far as hiring more women, though, this issues is a red herring. There simply aren’t enough women in the industry to be found. This gives diversity committees endless fodder re: “raising awareness”. At the end of the day, it’s as effectual as a Free Tibet rally; bloviated blustering inaction.