NATURAL GAS

#MeToo shines spotlight on industry's diversity problem

Katie Mehnert's dad warned her not to go into oil and gas.

After her father, a Louisiana-based engineer, got laid off from his energy job in the 1980s, he told her: "Doll baby, you do not get into this business," Mehnert recounted to an audience at the World Gas Conference yesterday.

Mehnert weighed her options and went to journalism school, but eventually the call of the family business pulled her to roles at Enron Corp., Royal Dutch Shell PLC and BP PLC. She's now the founder and CEO of Pink Petro, a social network for women in the oil and gas business (Energywire, May 26, 2015).

During her time in the industry, Mehnert said she never felt like anything less than a professional — until she was asked a question by a fellow passenger on a flight from London to Houston.

"What's a pretty young lady like you doing in a dark, dangerous business like oil?" he asked, swirling his glass of bourbon.

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Since that time, Mehnert has been working to change the image of oil and gas. That starts with paying more attention to who gets hired, developed and promoted in the industry, she said.

In the age of #MeToo, Twitter and viral news, fostering an inclusive workplace is not optional, Mehnert said.

"We're living in a time when our values are on full display, and we're either rewarded for those values or we're penalized for those values," she said. "No one can really hide anymore."

The charge is broader than just gender diversity, said Paula Glover, president and CEO of the American Association of Blacks in Energy.

A diverse workforce can serve as "cultural informants," she said. Glover once worked for a company that wrote its bill inserts in Spanish, thinking that the materials would be helpful to Spanish-speaking customers. But when they handed the pamphlet to a colleague who was a representative of the demographic the company was trying to reach, he didn't understand the language. The text was in a dialect that was completely different from what people in that neighborhood spoke, she said.

Those considerations will only become more important as the United States — and the body of energy consumers — becomes more diverse, Glover said.

"Without diversity, our industry just does not survive," she said.

Having more women in the negotiations room can help companies secure more favorable contracts, said Hilary Mercer, vice president of Shell Pennsylvania Chemicals.

"Women tend to look for the win-win," she said.

Mercer noted the value of integrating all perspectives into the workforce.

"Diverse groups make better decisions," said Kelly Rose, a partner at Baker Botts LLP in Houston.

The panelists said they were optimistic about the future of women in the energy industry.

"We've come a long way," said Yetunde Bajela-Taiwo, gas business leader for the Nigerian firm Seplat Petroleum Development Co. PLC.

"It's still a male-dominated industry, but it's our responsibility for those of us who have gone through the decades to put those enabling mechanisms in place for the younger ones to thrive."

Twitter: @pamelalauren Email: pking@eenews.net

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