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Women in power

The energy sector lags behind when it comes to diversity – this is why it matters
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Fran Woodward, COO of Good Energy

This article first appeared in our International Women’s Day issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 08 March 2024. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Energy has a crucial role to play in the transition to a flourishing and equitable society – but we’ll struggle to get fair and just outcomes from a sector that lacks diversity.

Fran Woodward, COO at Good Energy, is part of a generation of women she feels ‘had it much easier than our mothers did at work’, but for whom workplaces have still been tough.

‘I put off having children until my mid-30s, probably in part because of the impact it would likely have on my career’, Fran tells us. ‘And indeed it did.’

Fran was operating at a director level when she left work to have kids; part-time roles – or even positions for four days a week – were then extremely rare at this level. ‘Huge numbers of talented women disappeared from the workforce or from the progression paths that would have allowed them to access senior roles in industry today’, she says.

It’s a familiar story with no straightforward solution; Fran’s approach was to work three to four days a week as a freelance consultant and interim in order to maintain a level of professional experience. ‘Good Energy then offered me a director-level role on four days a week’, she tells us; ‘after a relatively short space of time I went back to five days a week, but it was my choice and I was not forced.’

Women in the energy sector

Within the energy sector, Good Energy’s approach to supporting and encouraging women in the workplace was pretty unusual; when Fran moved into the industry after positions in retail, FMCG and publishing she felt the sector stood out for being more male-dominated.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), globally the gender gap in energy is more than twice as large as it is in the non-energy sector – and the stats show that it is especially imbalanced at a leadership level.

‘POWERful Women, the UK campaign for gender balance and diversity in the sector, researches this regularly’, Fran tells us. ‘Its most recent review reveals that women occupy 29% of board seats while the FTSE 250 reached 36.8% women on boards in 2022, so the energy sector is behind. The former figure is up marginally from 27% in 2021, which suggests it is at least moving slowly in the right direction.’

But the figures don’t always reflect how things feel and look on the ground; ‘It often feels as though it is going the opposite way’, Fran says. ‘Juliet Davenport stepped down as Good Energy’s CEO in 2021 and So Energy’s female CEO Monica Collings followed last November, meaning the UK currently has no energy supply companies with a female CEO.’

A long history and roots in engineering and infrastructure have played into the male dominance, and many of the roles in energy today require science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) qualifications.

There have been challenges getting girls and young women to study STEM subjects at school and university, which is one reason why jobs that require these skills – in areas like technology, finance and engineering and trading – lack female applicants.

Yet this isn’t the end of the story; while gender imbalance tends to be more pronounced in STEM roles, there is more going on.

‘Sometimes I think there is a danger we all hide behind the need for ‘STEM’ subjects’, Fran accepts. ‘An energy company has a huge variety of roles and needs breadth of skills – particularly those that help it understand and serve its customers, employees and other stakeholders. It is as much about people as it is about tech, engineering and finances.’

Fran stresses that intelligent people who learn fast, from all backgrounds and walks of life, can learn if they are given the right opportunities. For that reason not all CEOs of energy firms today have science, technology, engineering or accounting backgrounds.

‘A couple of examples I know of, as I have worked for them both, are our CEO Nigel, who studied history at university and has not had a ‘STEM’ career’, Fran reveals, ‘and E-ON UK’s Chris Norbury, another arts graduate, who has an HR background. So a STEM education is not the only reason there are so few women in the top jobs.’

Embracing new work styles

For Fran, one of the things deterring women from roles in the energy sector is the lack of women; ‘That’s why those of us in the sector need to get out there and be seen!’, Fran says. ‘When you look at an industry and do not see anyone else like yourself, and a lack of representation in leadership roles, that is going to put you off. As a woman you would be forgiven for assuming your opportunity for progression is going to be limited.’

The good news is that things are changing rapidly, supported by campaigns and initiatives to get more women into energy roles. ‘Here in the UK we have POWERful Women and our industry- wide trade body Energy UK — which itself has a great female CEO in Emma Pinchbeck — runs a programme called TIDE, or Tackling Inclusion and Diversity in Energy’, Fran tells us. ‘The IEA set up its Gender Advisory Council in 2021.’

The trend towards flexible working styles has also been particularly beneficial for women, who are more often caregivers. The global shift was already well underway, driven by the need to hire and retain good talent. It was then supercharged by the challenges of lockdown.

‘In a post-Covid world flexible and remote working is the norm’, Fran says, ‘which has helped to level the playing field.’

For Good Energy new work styles have helped to improve diversity in other ways; ‘Our corner of the South West is not the most ethnically diverse’, Fran accepts, ‘but with remote and hybrid working we can cast a much wider net.’

Diversity matters

Diversion and inclusion are important from a social justice perspective, but why do they matter so much from a business point of view? ‘The most obvious answer is that you need the best people in any given job’, Fran says. ‘If there are systemic barriers to women getting that job, that means that having the best person is less likely. That is not reverse discrimination, it is equity – a level playing field. In addition to this if there is a majority of people with similar backgrounds and viewpoints, due to a lack of balance in gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background or neurodiversity, that can lead to groupthink. Problems or solutions others may see don’t get seen.’

For Fran it’s important to note that working policies which can lead to gender balance should not – and do not – solely benefit women. ‘I believe until it is as acceptable for men to have flexible working in the workplace, as it is for women, equity will be hard to achieve’, she explains. ‘We have had several senior men in Good Energy take up shared parental leave and part-time working, and make every effort to celebrate how fantastic this is. We have to shift the old norms around women being primary carers and lift the stigma men often still get when they play an active role.’

While balance and representation are key to success in any sector, Fran sees even more reason to encourage diversity in the energy sector. ‘In energy we have an incredibly important mission to decarbonise and tackle climate change’, she tells us. ‘If you consider that a lack of gender balance could lead to groupthink, this becomes extremely worrying. We need the best possible people, with diverse perspectives, to drive what is a huge transformation of mindsets, systems and behaviours. Groupthink poses a risk to this. We need it to be just, fair and to bring everyone along – and that means gender equity.’

Creating a diverse culture

Thankfully, the renewable energy sector we require for rapid decarbonisation is slightly ahead of the game when it comes to embracing diversity.

According to the IEA, women account for 22% of the global labour force in the oil and gas sector and 32% in renewables. So while there is imbalance across the board in the energy sector, it is less pronounced in renewables.

‘I expect this is largely down to companies in the renewables sector tending to be more recently founded and therefore more progressive and forward-thinking’, Fran suggests. ‘It offers some hope that the companies at the forefront of the energy transition are more inclusive and have more diverse talent.’

Since joining Good Energy Fran has been given great scope for progression, and feels the culture took its lead from former CEO Juliet Davenport. ‘Juliet had an infectious ‘can-do’ attitude’, Fran says. ‘She was a self-taught CEO who was great at giving others, like me, the chance to take on new things without the barrier of direct previous experience.’

The current CEO, Nigel Pocklington, supported Fran joining the board as an executive director. ‘But while I have progressed, overall gender balance at the top of the industry is still a problem’, she says.

There are some obvious ways to attract more women to the energy sector, like ensuring women are shortlisted for roles, and those are effective to
a degree. But there are deeper issues at play.

‘A couple of impactful schemes we run have helped address the fact that women are often less confident in their own abilities’, Fran tells us. ‘This can affect everything from their willingness to apply for promotions to their ability to communicate.’

Good Energy’s Early Careers programme helps its talent learn about the different jobs across Good Energy, and gives staff the chance to ‘test’ different roles. ‘This seems to particularly help those people with confidence issues’, Fran says. ‘We also run 121 coaching for our mid- to senior-level managers; the women take this up 50% more frequently than men, and we see significant shifts in their performance and ability to show their potential as a result.’

Good Energy has worked with organisations like STEMettes, a brilliant charity set up to inspire and encourage girls and young women into STEM, and try and encourage a better pipeline of female talent from an earlier age.

‘We must also recognise that there are plenty of careers in energy that do not require a STEM background’, Fran says. ‘I have a degree in English and my career has been in
customer and people functions.’

A sector fit for the future

Fran would like to see people selected for roles based on skills and capabilities, not just past experience. ‘We should select people who learn and adapt fast over those who know how to do it because they have done it before’, she says. ‘If you test for these skills fairly, then you are hiring the best person for the job – even if they do need slightly more ‘getting up to speed’ time in the short term. This will help you accelerate talented people from more diverse pools, including women.’

Wherever possible, Fran would like to see flexible and remote working practices rolled out to everyone. ‘Recognising men’s adoption of flexibility, and an equal role in caring for dependents, is key. We should showcase senior men working flexibly so it’s seen not just as being socially acceptable but also a sign of success. This goes hand in hand with investment in good maternity, paternity and shared parental leave schemes.’

Now Good Energy faces a new challenge, as it recently became a heat pump and solar installer that employs engineers and electricians. ‘You can’t work from home if your job is fitting a hot water tank or a solar inverter’, Fran acknowledges. ‘And as you might expect, the people in those roles are overwhelmingly male.’

There are an estimated 3,000 qualified heat pump engineers today, and we’ll need about 50,000 to hit the government’s heat pump installation targets. ‘I don’t think our government is doing enough to encourage young people into these fantastic career paths’, Fran says. ‘This goes for boys, too, if you look at diversity through a socioeconomic lens.’

Thankfully the companies powering us towards a sustainable future are now pushing for change in the diversity stakes, too.

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