The end is already in sight for the global coal industry, as it faces competition from newer, cheaper fuels. For oil and gas the outlook is brighter, at least over the near term. In the long run, though, a lack of gender diversity could be the driving force that finally pushes all three fossil fuels—coal, oil and gas—out of their dominant role in the global economy.
Last week, the Houston Chronicle published an op/ed that outlines how a lack of gender diversity could propel the oil and gas industry into obscurity.
Amy Myers Jaffe, co-chair of the Women in Energy Program at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, and Jully Merino Carela, director of the program, co-authored the piece. (Ms. Jaffe is also a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations.) They argue that the energy sector is falling far behind in the race to attract—and keep—top talent among global innovators.
Part of the problem is the cyclical nature of the fossil energy sector and the impact of tax law, wrote Jaffe and Carela, who noted that women in the energy industry are more likely to lose their jobs during downturns or changes in tax credits. That’s because women in the energy industry tend to serve in support positions that are relatively easy to fill, shed and refill as needed.
To compound the problem, companies tend to scale back their diversity initiatives during down-cycles. In addition, the social hierarchies that dominated the business world in the 20th century are still very much in play: "Even technical women in front-line roles—which are more likely to get a person promoted into upper management and the C-Suite—say they are having trouble advancing their careers," Jaffe and Carela wrote. "They say men still bond with each other through sporting events or client dinners that have led to male camaraderie over the years and make it harder for women to break in.”
With leverage from basic demographic trends, Jaffe and Carela make the case that the energy industry has a bottom-line motive to invest in gender diversity: "The energy industry has found itself with unique problems. Almost a quarter of U.S. employees in the natural gas and electricity utilities sector will be approaching retirement within five years, necessitating a large recruitment of new talent,” they wrote.
Compounding the gender diversity problem is the overall diverse composition of the up-and-coming workforce. Oil and gas companies will be recruiting from a workforce that is more than 50 percent non-white, and data shows the industry does not appeal to today's young people as it has prior generations. Jaffe and Carela cite one study that paints an especially dire picture: "Research has found that only 2 percent of U.S. college graduates view working in the oil and gas industry as a top viable career choice.”
Evidence is growing that gender diversity improves company performance at any level. To that end, Jaffe and Carela describe a range of specific steps that can help companies attract and keep top female talent, from providing daycare to focusing on positive feedback.
However, gender diversity initiatives like these do not address the 800-pound gorilla in the room: the risks and impacts associated with fossil fuels, both on a local level and a global level.
Public surveys are beginning to show that Americans are finally taking climate change more seriously. That presents the oil and gas industry with a two-fold problem in terms of gender diversity.
First, it may help explain why college graduates are losing interest in pursuing careers in fossil fuels. That sentiment may be particularly strong among women, who are more likely to factor sustainability into their financial decisions than men.
Second, the political divide over climate change adds yet another layer of exclusion to the fossil fuel workforce.
Although climate awareness among Republican-identified members of the public has ticked upward in recent years, Democrats still dominate the case for climate action.
A Monmouth University poll taken in November 2019 illustrates the climate change divide: “Support for government action is slightly higher than in 2015 when 64 percent were in favor and 26 percent were opposed. There are predictable partisan differences, with 85 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of independents and 51 percent of Republicans supporting government action." These partisan results were similar in 2015, although the preference for action rose slightly for all groups.
Regardless of political affiliation, millennials who are interested in energy-related fields have a much wider range of high-paying career options to choose from than the previous generation. Those options—wind, solar, energy efficiency and energy storage—are becoming job-creating powerhouses, even in traditional strongholds of U.S. fossil fuel production, such as Texas.
Jobs in alternative energy fields also provide an important intangible benefit: the opportunity, almost literally, to be a hero and save the planet from destruction. American popular culture is finally beginning to support the hero impulse in women, as evidenced by the blockbuster success of Captain Marvel, which features a supernatural female protagonist. With these factors in mind, the fossil fuel industry’s gender diversity problem is also a cultural challenge—and neither one of them is going away.
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Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.