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‘It’s not your grandpa’s energy industry anymore’: Katie Smith-Parent on the opportunities for women in the energy sector

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Podcast & Video

The Hub is partnering with Pathways Alliance to promote greater awareness and discussion of the goal of decarbonizing Canada’s oil sands production to reach net zero emissions from operations by 2050. Through a six-part podcast series produced for Pathways, Hub readers and listeners will get the latest analysis and insights of industry experts and leaders who are acting on Pathways’ ambitious call to action. For more information on Pathways visit pathwaysalliance.ca. Are you leading an industry group with an important public policy message? If so be sure to check out The Hub’s new digital marketing platform here.  

The featured guest in this episode is Katie Smith-Parent, executive director of Young Women in Energy and co-founder and board director of Axis Connects. She joins host Rudyard Griffiths to discuss the role of women in the energy sector, the challenges that women face, what these reveal about the state of the industry today, and what are the opportunities that increased female participation in the industry can bring about for all kinds of big goals, including decarbonization.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, or Spotify.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Katie, welcome to the Hub Dialogues.

KATIE SMITH-PARENT: Great, happy to be here. Thanks for the opportunity.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: I’m looking forward to this conversation today. We’ve been talking with a variety of different, important voices in Canada’s energy sector about Pathways and its ambitious net zero goal in terms of emissions from operations by 2050. So to get the perspective of women in the industry, what are the challenges and opportunities that you’re facing as a group now? And how are women playing into this broader effort across the energy sector to address some of the real challenges of climate vis-a-vis these different kinds of mitigation strategies, including what Pathways is pursuing? So let’s start with the basics here. Katie, how would you characterize the current state of play of women in Canada’s energy sector? How full or how empty is the cup right now when it comes to women’s participation in all aspects of Canada’s energy production?

KATIE SMITH-PARENT: Honestly, it’s been a bit slow. Obviously, historically, this is a very male-dominated industry. But right now, we’d say about 30 percent are women. And that’s just participation in Canada’s oil and gas sector. So those roles are held by women. But really, only 17 percent of executives are women. And 27 percent of entry-level jobs are held by women. So we still don’t reflect the communities and the regions that we operate in, but it is slowly but surely progressing forward.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: So, Katie, what would you say are the costs to the industry right now for not having gender parity? And maybe not only at a leadership level, i.e. in boardrooms and on the part of CEOs, but within the general rank-and-file technical and service workers who are essential to the success of this industry and its ambitions to decarbonize?

KATIE SMITH-PARENT: I think it’s about ensuring that the best and the brightest are at the table contributing to those solutions that solve that kind of massive challenge that the industry is facing, and in all different roles. So whether that’s—leadership roles are typically more technical than field or operational roles. But you know, you need leaders in marketing and HR and public relations and all the other constructs within the industry. But I think it’s about just having more women or just diverse perspectives at the table. So that’s not just related to gender, that’s more people of colour, more Black folks, more LGBTQ2A+. It’s really just expanding the diversity of the workforce and I think what we’re finding in energy as well, is this idea of sort of a labour shortage that we’re really coming across, especially when you think of Pathways and they have this massive 400 Kilometer carbon trunk plan they’re trying to build and how do you get the right people to actually be the ones to execute the work? So, 50 percent of Canada’s population is female. So, you know, you don’t want to leave anyone behind because we need everyone at the table. 

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Yeah, I think that’s a great argument. You know, these things are not about quotas. I think they’re really about human potential. And if you’re an industry or if you have a big challenge, then you want to maximize human potential around your objectives and your goals. To limit yourself in terms of the potential group that you can pull into your enterprises, into your shared project, just seems like an inefficient place to start from.

KATIE SMITH-PARENT: Exactly.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: What do you see, Katie, as the advantages to the industry in having more of an ability to reflect back to the communities that it’s working in and with, the diversity and reality of those communities? What kind of potential opportunities does that create?

KATIE SMITH-PARENT: I think there are so many opportunities, especially when you think of just public opinion. Obviously, energy is a hot topic, specifically in Canada, but globally, especially as we all are in this race to net zero. But just understanding that it’s actually a way more diverse industry than it previously was. We used to joke that it’s not your grandpa’s energy industry anymore. It’s really this new energy system where all different types of people can participate and all that. So there’s just a lot to go on there. 

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Yeah. So when you think of a typical community that’s working, you know, with and for the energy sector, we’re seeing a lot of immigration in Canada, record levels of newcomers arriving in the country. I assume that that diversity is happening on the ground. And what I’m hearing from you, Katie is a wish or desire, maybe an ambition for the industry to catch up, to not get behind how quickly things are changing in the ground. So that when there are big projects, like the types that Pathways is considering, those communities see themselves reflected in the individuals, both in the leadership groups, but also, as we’ve talked about, the people on the ground who are actually going to do the work that are going to put these ambitious, big projects together.

KATIE SMITH-PARENT: For sure. And I think going back to your comment about human potential when we’ve looked to leadership, we have this concept called “If you see it, you can be it.” And so I think if people are starting, say on more of the entry-level roles, but they look at the executive table, and it doesn’t look at all like them, I think that they’re more likely to maybe choose a different industry to put that great potential into. So it’s sort of a recruitment tool, but it’s also a retention tool and an advancement tool to really ensure that the leadership tables and the companies that are moving these massive energy projects along reflect the communities that they’re in.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: What are some of the barriers that you’ve identified in your work, especially that confront women in terms of their ability to advance within the industry?

KATIE SMITH-PARENT: I think there are a few. There are the ones that we typically talk about, you know, the wage gap. I’m finding that even since 2009, women’s salaries in the Canadian energy sector have increased 30 percent. So, we’re making some significant progress there. But I’m finding the one that is harder to change is really the hearts and minds, it’s a kind of enduring bias about what women’s roles are, especially in a context that this is really an industry that was built without women in mind, it just wasn’t back in the day. So I think there are still some of those societal expectations that women—even just women who are going to work, but then that women are supposed to also work and take on the majority of the household labour at home as well.

But you know, there are some barriers, including anything from lack of access to job opportunities, those informal networking—we’re known as an industry that typically really likes, you know, golf, hockey, and all of the above. So, you know, just expanding what that looks like, and what those business development opportunities are. Again, it’s kind of there are some things that I think maybe women are typically looked on that they would value, things like flexible work, child care, and all that. But I think when we really look at it, it’s actually helpful for everyone. It’s helpful for working fathers, it’s helpful for parents of anyone, or just flexible work if people have other passions in their life. So there’s a lot that we can do.

But I think the barriers really are—it hasn’t been done yet. So we did a solve-a-thon a couple of years ago, which is essentially like a hack-a-thon, but for qualitative data. And one of the things we found is that there’s no really great example that everyone can look to that’s a best practice. Everyone’s on that journey right now. So you know, we can pick pieces here and there from different companies that are doing different parts really well. But we don’t have this shining example of what a great, diverse energy company looks like. It’s all about us actually having to build that now.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Right, exciting stuff. When you think of misperceptions of the energy sector in the energy industry in Canada, how much do you think of that comes about simply through the reality that there are these kinds of imbalances that the industry is working on? As you say, they’re making substantive progress, but how much of that misperception is simply that often, as you say, maybe women have a sense that this is a male-dominated industry. It’s not part of their, let’s say—even what they’re thinking about in terms of careers, if they’re coming out of STEM programs, or university degrees that potentially could lead to a career in the energy industry, it’s not even on their radar. Is that a piece of the puzzle, part of the problem that we need to solve?

KATIE SMITH-PARENT: Absolutely, I think there are a few pieces there. But like, when I think of the misconceptions of the energy industry, and you know, Pathways is a great example of this, is that people think that energy companies, especially those who are mostly fossil fuel related, that they’re not doing anything to combat climate change. But, we’re one of the largest investors in clean technology and Canada. We’ve skyrocketed—especially if I’m specifically thinking about Alberta, you know, we beat our goal to get off coal, by seven years. We beat the goal to reduce methane reduction by 45 percent by 2025. You know, we’re going to beat that two years early. So I think there are some misconceptions there about where the energy industry is going.

I think the other thing that I think of is the fact that people think that some of those numbers I mentioned earlier, not necessarily they don’t lie, but there are some really powerful women that are behind a lot of those statistics. So, again, if I think of Pathways, and, you know, their steering committee is six senior executives, and three of those are some really incredible female executives from some of Canada’s largest energy companies. So I think that’s the misconception, that women aren’t in those places, but they are. But the other side of that is, we need to almost I don’t want to necessarily say tell the same story, but you got to hear it from a different voice. We’ve heard it from the CEOs who have been CEOs for, you know, ten,15, 20 years. It’s about hearing from the younger generation, the women, the Indigenous people, the LGBTQ2A+ people. How do you hear from their perspective, on what the energy industry looks like, and not just from those sitting at the C suite? So I think there’s a bit of a misconception, but also, there’s so much opportunity there to tell the stories that are within energy so that everyone can be part of this energy story.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS:  And what would you say, if we had those groups together with us now, the Indigenous community, the LGBTQ+, women? What would be the story that those groups working in the energy sector would want to share with Canadians? I realize there’s gonna be a lot of diversity and a range of views and perspectives, but are there some kind of commonalities amongst those groups in terms of their views? Because their views are kind of interesting, because generally, we don’t assume that those communities have views on energy, which in some ways itself is kind of pejorative and a bit discriminating, right? We don’t often turn to women or our First Nations friends or the LGBTQ+, and say, “Hey, what do you think about energy in Canada?”

KATIE SMITH-PARENT: Absolutely. I’m hoping I’m not too optimistic on this, but I think the underlying word is going to be that there’s progress. You know, we know that certain things in a historically male-dominated industry, it could be anything like mining, it could be energy, anything. It’s going to be a bit slow. But I think that there is progress. Even what I’ve seen, I’ve only been in my career, ten to 15 years, but, I’ve seen extensive progress. So I look at what progress we’ve done on carbon emission, I look at the progress that we’ve done on diversity and inclusion. And so I would hope even the progress we’ve done to better engage Indigenous people as owners, and we look to all the Indigenous groups that are hoping to by the TMX like, we have a lot of progress that’s happening right now. And I think that’s where a lot of optimism comes, especially from the younger generation is that, you know, we’ve set some targets we’ve, we’ve put in some plans, but now we’re actually doing the work, and like making that progress happen, whether it’s de-AI, decarbonization, or digitization or any of that.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: In your career, there were some moments and milestones where you realize that someone kind of helped you in a way that was maybe different from how the industry traditionally has tried to advance people or advance their careers. And specifically, have there been other women that you’ve worked with who’ve kind of provided you with that leadership to bootstrap your own progress within the industry?

KATIE SMITH-PARENT: Oh, a ton. And I find most of like, my career success has really come from my volunteering efforts. So a lot of this idea of, you know, leading young women and energy, I just get access to some incredibly passionate executives and other women, peers, students. We get such a wide variety. So I found that a lot of my network now is so female dominant, that it’s all these passionate women that are challenging the status quo, and, building up their communities and everything that I’ve been really fortunate that way. One of the things that Young Women in Energy does is an awards program every year. So every year we recognize ten women who in our, quote, “Is changing the face of energy.” And so through that program, it’s really we’re recognizing rewarding women at that kind of pivotal part in their career where, you know, they’re, they’ve chosen what career they want to pursue within the energy industry. And you know, they probably bang their head against the wall for a few years. And now we’re really like, “Hey, we see you, we appreciate your contributions. Keep going.”

But it’s through that program, we’ve now had over 90 people over the last nine years and leading Young Women in Energy, I get access to all those women. And when you surround yourself, with women like that, it is absolutely infectious about what you can do. The passion and the diversity of even what parts—some are so passionate about geology, and some are so passionate about emissions reduction and so passionate about making the supply chain more efficient, it’s just the most interesting people. And you realize the more that you talk to them that these people are the backbone of this industry. And this is why in my head, I’m like, “Oh, we’re, we’re going to be fine in the future because we have some pretty incredible women and others that are really gonna move it forward.” But on the other side, you know, I would be remiss to say that, you know—especially male mentors have been extremely important in my career. And even mentors is one thing, but sponsors and you know, I have a few VPs in my life who talk really positively about me when I’m not in the room. And so they’ve taken, you know, that that specific task on and I, like, I’m so appreciative. So it’s really about men and women working together. But it’s that access to opportunity or access to that network of whether it’s the cheerleaders that are around you that say keep going or it’s the people that are maybe your Devil’s Advocate, it’s just it’s that kind of mentorship mosaic of all the different people that make up your career.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: So just to pick up on something you mentioned there, Katie, in that excellent answer, is the goal of decarbonization lowering emissions on the part of the industry, is that something that you’re seeing across your network as a priority; something that’s kind of animating people, driving women forward within the industry at large?

KATIE SMITH-PARENT: Absolutely. So I think when we think about the ESG framework, the E has been at the forefront for a while and a lot of women are more attracted to that sustainability side of the industry. But then we’re now seeing really the resurgence or the “surgence” of the S and the G. So that S side, that social piece is so connected into that. So all of the Indigenous relations, reconciliation, a lot of the diversity and inclusion initiatives. So I’m finding that decarbonization and diversity are almost inextricably linked. That’s really all we end up talking about, you know, you still want to be talking about the ways in which we continue to provide energy to the world, but all of those really unique pieces of how we’re going to decarbonize while increasing diversity that has, you know, that’s like the only topic I feel like we talk about these days.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: And, again, I don’t want to apply to women special attributes that they have versus men. But is there something there that you think women can uniquely contribute to that effort of decarbonization?

KATIE SMITH-PARENT: Absolutely, but I think it’s, again, it’s that diverse perspective that maybe hasn’t been called on before. So maybe it’s a different way of looking at it a new way, an innovative way, something maybe more creative. But I think it’s also that community aspect. So, you know, you don’t want to do overgeneralization but women tend to be community builders and have that kind of ripple effect where they do something and the community benefits. I think that piece is what’s mostly felt is just that ability for women to contribute that more nurturing side, I hate to say that far, but it is that collaborative, less harsh, competitive space, it’s more of that competition. I like to say that cooperative competition. But yeah along that angle for sure. 

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Yeah, no, I can I can see that. I mean, I think there’s, again, a perception that a lot of the industry is focused on, you know, ROI, return on investments. These are often publicly traded companies that obviously have a responsibility to return value to shareholders. And I guess I think sometimes, you know, people think, “Well, how can you reconcile that with goals around decarbonization, or diversity are these things that some ways might not always be reconciled, at least in the short term with, you know, your profitability as an industry?”

But I get a sense from you, Katie, that, that the industry can walk and chew gum at the same time that there’s an ability here to, you know, continue to focus on profitability and their responsibilities to shareholders, but also seeing that these larger mandates around diversity, decarbonization, a new relationship with Canada’s First Nations people, these are in a sense, the prerequisites for longer-term success on the part of the industry and therefore ultimately feed back into that idea of “How do you build a successful business?” Not over a few quarters, but over the years and potentially decades into the future?

KATIE SMITH-PARENT: Absolutely. A friend of mine, Kevin Crecer, talks about this as the single biggest opportunity of our time. So whether that’s, you know, investing in the new energy future, or diversity, inclusion and all that, but I think this is the opportunity. So we had a sustainability event a couple of weeks ago, and we asked that same question, you know, is this focus on ESG, specifically, the asks, you know, anti-returns for shareholders, but it’s actually the investment community that’s just, as you know, persistent and asking about all this stuff. So I think right now, a lot of companies are being judged on their E. But I think in the coming years, the S and G, you’re going to see a lot more reporting on it, we’re going to see a lot more focus on it. So it’s more of a “Do you want the competitive advantage to start early and start now and get ahead of it? Or do you want to be the one that has to be swept up with any kind of government rules and regulations because you haven’t gotten there yet?” So I think I think when you think about it more as an opportunity, rather than a challenge, I think there are certain people that can absolutely capitalize on that. And I think shareholders will understand

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: When you think of the S and the G, you know, sustainability and governance, these bigger questions, what would you want to share with a person maybe much like myself, who has a very cursory set of insights into the energy industry, it’s really just what I read in the newspapers, or I see on my social feeds, you know, the counter-argument, the counter-argument is that this stuff is quote, “greenwashing” and is secondary, it’s tertiary, to the primary activity of these companies, which is carbon extraction. So I think it’d be interesting to hear from you, a woman in the industry. What’s the pushback to that kind of cynicism? We know it’s out there and I think it’s important to address.

KATIE SMITH-PARENT: I completely agree. So I think there’s one piece of this where, you know, people think it’s greenwashing because it’s more of a call to investors. But if you look at these companies, the people inside and the people, the company, the employees that are working with these companies are just as adamant that this can’t be greenwashing because we don’t want to work for companies that are just greenwashing. We want this to be real. And we want to be part of the solution. So I’m finding sometimes when people think that it’s all just setting targets, I think it’s actually the pressure on leadership teams is their employees want it just as bad as the investment community or the public.

So I think there’s really this concept of a wouldn’t, you can’t get away with greenwashing anymore. People are holding you to account people are reading your sustainability reports. There are activist investors that are ready to jump. If you don’t make good on your promises, you don’t get to just say whatever you want anymore, you have got to back it up. So I think that’s from a completely outsider’s perspective. I think people realize that the people in the industry are just as passionate as, say, the public who might be against it. And we’re just as passionate about wanting to reduce carbon emissions, but also wanting to do it profitably. We all want a great quality of life. We love the quality of life we have in Canada with some, you know, the benefit of having natural resources everywhere, but I want to do it responsibly, safely, and you know, environmentally consciously. So yeah, I think it’s just that concept that we are just as adamant about the success of this kind of decarbonization effort as everyone else.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Yeah, so just to underline that, because I think this is a really important point, what you’re saying is that these values are held in these companies widely. They’re held not only by the C suite but they’re held by rank-and-file workers. And in a sense, there’s a contract now, between the companies and not only investors but their own workforce to deliver on these outcomes because you’re a mission-driven culture. I think that’s one of the really positive things often about the energy industry is it’s project-driven. It’s mission-driven. There are all kinds of great metrics that you can pull to understand. Are you further away from your mission? Or are you closer to it? So what an effect you’re saying is that the accountability mechanism goes well beyond government regulation, and ESG rules, it’s really about the social contract between the employer and the employee.

KATIE SMITH-PARENT: And I think going back to that concept, that we have a labour shortage, you know, you’re gonna fight for talent. And to be honest, I wouldn’t work for a company that I don’t feel is sustainable. So, you know, I’m focused on I want to see that they’re setting targets. And I want to see that they care about diversity. And I want to see they care about the environment. But I want to see actual progress on that. Just saying that doesn’t—you’re not going to win the talent game on that perspective.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: So final question, where do you think this all goes from here? If you and I were to have this conversation 15, 20 years from now, we’re getting closer to 2050 at that date, when these major oil sands and energy companies that have come together under Pathways have committed to decarbonizing their operations. What kind of conversation do you think we’ll have? How do you think the energy sector, the energy industry, will look different in 20 or 30 years?

KATIE SMITH-PARENT: It’s going to be completely different and better. It’s funny, we asked this question a couple of weeks ago, too. And it’s like, I just want us to be proud of where we came from. So in, you know, 20 years and even a couple years out, it’s like 2045, I want us to know that government, industry, academia, we all came a long way. We trained the right workers, we invested in the right projects, we were successful in a lot of our decarbonization initiatives, I think the energy industry will be much more of a mix. I’d love to see carbon capture, absolutely, boom, I think that will be amazing. I’d love to see nuclear in the oil sands would be incredible. You know, there are certain things on that piece.

But then also, I’d love to see more women in C-suite positions. So I want to see more like the steering COs at Pathways and elsewhere having 50 percent women, I’d love to see more than 30 percent on a lot of these executive teams and boards. But you’re going to actually find that people won’t have to look as hard for women, because they’re going to be at that level where they’re ready to take on they’re already qualified, but you’re going to find them because they’re going to be already present in the industry. So we really hope that a lot of the women that I’m talking to now, in kind of our networks, that in 20 years, they will be the future executives alongside some incredible male allies and everybody, but they’ll all be working towards this, you know, net zero goal. And I think we’ll be you know, five years out from our net zero goal and we will even beat it.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Who knows? Okay, well, listening to you today, Katie, I’m confident that the participation of women in this industry can only make it better. And as you say, there has been a lot of progress made more to come. But I want to salute you for your work on expanding all of our horizons about the role of the contribution of women to the energy sector, what they’re doing right now, but also how they’re contributing to these ambitious goals going forward. So thank you so much for coming on the Hub Dialogues today.

KATIE SMITH-PARENT: Thanks so much.

This content was produced as part of a paid promotional partnership with Pathways Alliance.

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