Women in energy executive breakfast

Using the #MeToo era as a catalyst for creating a safer workplace environment

The concept of “safety” is taking on new meaning at energy companies in the #MeToo era.

Senior energy leaders and labor experts who spoke at KPMG’s annual Women in Energy Executive Breakfast discussed how the industry can create a more inclusive culture by applying the same diligence to addressing sexual harassment that it successfully used to transform physical safety standards for employees.

“We need the right language and the right tools that we can take back to our companies and drive real change so that everyone, men and women, feel respected,” said panel moderator Angie Gildea, Principal, Americas Oil and Gas Co-Leader, KPMG in the U.S. “And that’s why we’re here this morning.”

Significant room for improvement in the energy sector

Energy’s current approach to sexual harassment is similar to how it was handling safety issues in the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to labor and employment attorney Tom Wilson, a partner at Vinson & Elkins LLP.

“At that point we were measuring a lot of the wrong things, we were missing the big picture, and culture wasn’t really part of what we were talking about,” he said. “And I think that’s where we are today on this topic as an industry.”

An anonymous poll of breakfast attendees found that more than 60% of the women, and surprisingly, more than 70% of the men, had experienced what they would describe as a #MeToo moment in the workplace. Many respondents said their experiences were recent, within a year’s time.

“We know by the numbers that industries where you have a higher percentage of men in leadership, you have a greater incidence of sexual harassment,” said Betsy Bagley, Senior Director and Consultant for Advisory Services at Catalyst, a non-profit organization supporting inclusive workplaces for women. “While it’s certainly improved in energy, it still is one of the laggards.”

About half of the attendees who answered the poll also said that, overall, the energy industry hasn’t changed much since the start of the #MeToo movement. “That’s not a good sign,” Wilson said. “That probably is the most sobering number there, with all of what’s gone on the last 18 months.”

Meanwhile, men may be changing their behavior in the workplace in response to #MeToo, but not always in a positive way, the panelists said.

“You can go to an opposite extreme of fear for being with a woman, or having a conversation, because you don’t know where that line is,” said Stephanie Cox, recently named President of North America Land Drilling at Schlumberger Limited after serving as the company’s Vice President of Human Resources. “If this fear prevents the advancement of women, then that sends us so far back to what we don’t want to see happen in our industry.”

To counter the pendulum swinging too far in the wrong direction as well as address some of the other challenges related to sexual harassment in the workplace, the panelists offered the following suggestions:


If everybody in the workplace respects everybody else and is looking out for them, then that’s the definition of safety.
Tom Wilson, Partner, Vinson & Elkins LLP

Create a climate for open dialogue and inclusion

While #MeToo empowered women to speak up, men’s discomfort with the topic can shut the conversation down, Bagley said. Catalyst’s MARC (Men Advocating Real Change) leadership program, for example, allows women to share their experience in a supportive environment, and gives men the tools to listen rather than react and try to explain behavior away.

Employees also need the right words to communicate, Bagley added. In the 1990s, the U.S. armed services established a bystander intervention system that gave people an easy “red, yellow, green” scale to describe their level of discomfort with behavior toward and around them.

“What’s OK for one person is not OK for another, and I think that’s what’s confusing to men, because they want the rule, ‘what am I supposed to do, what can I do?’” she said. “As a colleague that’s witnessing it, you have a mechanism for dialoguing, and then you can plan how to respond to yellow or red.”

For energy clients, Catalyst often refers to another safety culture approach—the now-common practice in the sector of discussing lessons learned through anecdotes—to help organizations build accountability and senior-level championship.

“Cultures really change by the stories that people are sharing, and when you’re opening every meeting with a ‘safety moment,’” Bagley said. “That same type of attention is needed for inclusion.”

Establish avenues to report problems

Employees need a clear process and reporting structure to raise concerns, Wilson said. This includes mechanisms for the most senior women in the company who may need to turn to a board member.

The chain of command does matter, he added. Plant safety managers used to report to the local plant manager, “a really bad dynamic that led to some really bad outcomes that this industry suffered.” Now, more often, they instead report up the safety chain.

HR can use the same structure, with the HR manager for a plant reporting up to corporate HR rather than local management, he said. “That way you’ve got an avenue where hopefully that HR person on site has created a way for people to feel comfortable to talk about these issues.”

Formalize mentoring relationships

One of the biggest barriers to women’s advancement is not having access to the informal, influential networks that turn into sponsorship, create opportunities, and garner the advocates that are going to open doors for women, Bagley said.

“What we’ve heard from men is that they do want to mentor high-potential women, but without somebody formalizing it, they feel that it will be misconstrued or misinterpreted,” she said. “By putting a system in place where you’re matching people and saying that it’s an important part of cultivating talent, and that we’re going to hold you accountable for mentoring and sponsoring women and men, then it helps them across the line so there’s less fear.”

Wilson said he reminds male clients that it’s simply part of their jobs to promote and find opportunities for employees, regardless of gender, and to model that behavior for younger men.

“At the end of the day, if you’re doing that, and you’ve got decent management skills, you are probably 99% going to be OK,” he said. “Don’t let this whole process scare you out of doing the right thing.”

Take every report seriously

Cox said that she’s aware of a number of reports in the industry spurred by the #MeToo movement that happened years and even decades earlier. Those older incidents need to be addressed as quickly and empathetically as recent ones, Wilson said, telling the audience to think of relief valves.

“When you get one of these reports, you can bet there’s some pressure,” he said. “If you don’t respond, and say, ‘we’re looking into this, we want to talk to you some more, we’re going to have somebody come visit you,’ whatever it might be, that pressure will build. And the next thing you know, that person will be on social media talking about this and naming your company, and now you’ve got a reporter calling you. Now it’s a lot worse situation than if you had at first said, we need to react and get on top of this before it gets out of hand.”

As the panel came to a close, Cox agreed the safety analogy “is a good comparison. As an industry we took a stand on safety, and we’re more serious about it,” she said. “It’s expected that you talk about it every day and there’s a platform to do it.”

“I think the safety analogy works so well because you get across the point that if everybody in the workplace respects everybody else and is looking out for them, then that’s the definition of safety. That’s what we’re talking about here, looking out for each other,” Wilson said. “And if you’re doing that, then you’re improving your safety, and hopefully you’re addressing the large numbers that we saw in the #MeToo movement.”

Betsy Bagley, Senior Director and Consultant for Advisory Services at Catalyst, gave an example of how men in one company did the right thing when they encountered a #MeToo moment.

Employees from a company were at a meeting with a customer when he addressed the most senior member of the group, and the only woman. “Well, you know, I’d really like to be able to cultivate this relationship, take you out to golf,” he said. “But I wonder would it be ok with you if I just invited your husband?”

After the meeting, one of the men checked in on his female colleague. “That just didn’t feel right to me,” he said, “was it OK with you?”

Her initial response was, “It’s OK, I’m used to dealing with this, I’ve got pretty thick skin. But did it bother me? Yes. I’m going to be OK, but I don’t think that what happened in there was OK.”

With that, her colleague then raised the issue with their boss who came back to her and said, “Look, we don’t need to be doing business with someone that is treating you with that level of disrespect. Do you want to terminate the relationship, or do you want me to do it?”

“Actually,” she said, “with your permission, I will be more than happy to terminate that relationship.”

“What I really liked about this story was how empowering all of those check-ins were with the woman,” Bagley said. “Nobody was rushing in to save her, they weren’t the white knight.”