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Women’s Leadership in Energy: Are We Skirting the Issues?

By Miriam Grunstein - US Mexico Center, Baker Institute
Non-Resident Scholar


By Miriam Grunstein | Non-Resident Scholar - Wed, 02/15/2023 - 14:00

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These reflections could well apply to any sort of industrial activity or business. Yet the energy sector appears to be one of the most male-dominated of all. It may be because there remains the clichéd image that energy supply depends on intrepid, muscular, and virile characters. “Drill, baby drill!” is a paradigmatic expression of “macho” power. Stereotypically, hard hats are worn by roughnecks. Men who reside in the rigs are rocks and islands.

These, of course, are dated – yet not faded — images.  Particularly in oil and gas, were there to be an industry musical, it would be to the thumping tunes of the “Village People.”

The “Village” who?

Excluding the young who savor kitschy blasts from the past, this bygone disco group is known mainly to those of us who are reaching senectitude, which sounds so much more dignified than “old.” As a senior woman, who chose her path in a male-dominated industry, my recollection is that, with or without being fully conscious, I laughed my way through its sexism. Far from being a victim of exclusion, any marginalization I have experienced is mainly accountable to me. My Marxist ideology compels me not to be a part of any group that will have me as a member. 

However fortunate my story might be, it is certainly not the one of all women in the industry. A very large group of my colleagues — younger and older, paler and darker, and “high” and “low” on the professional ladder — have suffered discrimination. This piece is not about who has been victimized the most. No individual nor any group holds the monopoly of having been shunned by the “system.” My point is: do women want to replicate a “leadership” business and organizational model created by and for men? Is a woman’s professional life meaningful only if she reaches the “top,” having triumphantly broken glass ceilings? This is a metaphor I personally loathe. The image of having to break a glass ceiling to surface from nothingness looks and feels unnecessarily painful. But women are exposed to explicit messages that, far from being inspiring, can be discouraging. Let’s talk about them:

Breaking the Glass Ceilings.

When Kamala Harris was named vice president, she was depicted in an impressive piece of artwork shattering a glass window. The message was that any girl or woman can ascend and shatter the barriers that keep us from power; male domination is possible to break if we have the proper skills and tools. Although these events can indeed be inspiring, they can also be understood in a counterproductive way. Women can break glass ceilings if the path they choose is to rise above everyone else (women and men) but they must pay a price personally and professionally. Opportunity costs are real: the time and effort invested in climbing to the top will be at the expense of personal relationships and activities. This, of course, also applies to men but — maybe less than before — men can count on being “legitimately” busy while women have to build a strong case to justify what can be interpreted as “abandonment,” particularly when family dynamics are affected. In sum, breaking the proverbial glass ceiling is indeed an accomplishment as long as it is a conscious choice and not an existential duty. Women should be aware that there are high costs involved and that it is perfectly fine to remain where they are if it suits them. Internal growth is possible in any step of the professional track. Also, as other women climb and shatter, beware of the falling glass pieces. 

I tweet therefore I am

Tweeting is just a mode of visibility — among many available today. The point here is that, in a world where there is fierce competition to be seen and followed, women in the industry are under tremendous pressure to be visible. To be seen is a condition to have followers, supporting but also adversarial. Whether a woman tweets, tik toks or youtubes, being an influencer requires intelligent strategy, particularly if she is part of an organization in a complex environment, such as the energy industry today in Mexico, which is strongly polarized. Many women could aspire to be Greta Thunberg but that could indeed wreck their efforts to “break the glass ceiling” should the company or organization be in disagreement with the statements about government or company policies. Again, I’m not recommending women to be silent — at all. The intention here is to create awareness that, while some recipes for success require women to be seen, at this time in the Mexican energy sector, visibility is to be managed wisely and strategically. Also, choose the issues worth your time and risk.

In or Out? Lists, Groups and Rankings…

Dear woman colleague, congratulations if you were admitted or voted into the “elite” list, ranking and/or group. I’m sure that, if you have an ounce of wisdom and perspective, the joy this brings will be temporary and underwhelming. If, on the other hand, you are “out,” this may be due to any number of circumstances that are beyond your control. Maybe you are not a PR wiz, or maybe you are but lack the time to rub elbows, or maybe your company did not pay to get you in the list or ranking. Yes! People of all genders (political correctness is in order) pay to belong. There is really nothing truly wrong with that. Ferraris are advertised, and so are Twingos. It is a matter of choosing whether you, as a woman, should be advertised like any good in the market.

What’s Really Missing?

If women’s leadership in energy (or any business) is not only about making it to the top, being visible and enmeshed in the upper crust of the industry, what — in my personal view — needs to be done? The knee-jerk answer is “empower” other women and mentor them. I find these notions condescending. Women do not need others to “empower” them. They already have it in them to move in any direction they want: up, sideways or down. Yes! It is entirely legitimate to step down. Jacinda Ardern just did with great grace and dignity. She was burned out after having broken glass ceilings, being a rock star prime minister and atop any group and list. 

The idea is to search for and find a “leadership” model bereft of the verticality of the conventional male-dominated model, wherein we look sideways in search of extending networks instead of looking up, only up. We shall find that there are many issues to which we are oblivious as women and as humans: How far have we come as women in the energy industry? What are the true barriers affecting women in the industry? Are there specific health risks involved for women in energy? Is there more upward mobility for us in the public or the private sector as regards energy? If so, why? 

I think that our efforts should be concentrated on serious reflection of those issues.

Photo by:   Miriam Grunstein

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