Gender Inequality in Energy and in Africa
The energy sector is notorious for its struggle to attract female employees. Women in the oil and gas industry face an array of challenges—inadequate (or nonexistent) maternity leave, a lack of female mentors, pay inequality, higher rates of sexual harassment, and a working culture that can devalue women and femininity as a whole. A 2018 study by the University of Massachusetts, for example, found that oil and gas had the highest rate of sexual harassment charges of any industry in the United States.
It is no wonder, then, that women make up so little of the global energy sector. Women represented about 22 percent of its global workforce in 2017, and participation dropped to 17 percent at senior and executive-level roles. Only 1 percent of the CEOs in oil and gas were women, reported Egypt Oil & Gas Newspaper in 2018. What’s more, in many cases, the women who work in this field earn less than their male counterparts. A study released at the 2016 World Economic Forum, The Future of Jobs, reported a 32 percent pay gap in the oil and gas industry globally.
Africa is no exception. While it has been difficult to find hard data on female participation in Africa’s oil and gas industry, anecdotal evidence shows that women are vastly underrepresented. This is short-sighted, and, frankly, a real stumbling block to African countries that want to realize the full socioeconomic benefits that a thriving oil and gas industry can provide. If you truly want your nation to thrive, why wouldn’t you do everything in your power to help half of your population participate in one of your most lucrative industries?
Call to Action in Africa
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has described sub-Saharan Africa as one of the most gender-unequal regions in the world, largely due to “perceptions, attitudes, and historic gender roles.” More women have limited access to health care, education, and economic opportunities here than anywhere else, reported The Washington Post. The lack of economic opportunities alone costs the countries of sub-Saharan Africa a combined total of USD95 billion in lost productivity annually, UNDP estimates. The oil and gas industry has real potential to start turning this situation around, but with gender inequality pervading this sector, the beneficial economic impacts are curtailed.
I believe most men in oil and gas still don’t get it when it comes to equality in the industry. We are quick to talk about diversity. However, our own work environments are mostly male. When you speak with men, they tell you that we have to hire, promote, and give contracts to women based only on merit. Are they suggesting that there would be plenty of women working in oil and gas if there were only more qualified candidates? Are they implying that advocates for a diverse oil and gas sector are more concerned with setting and meeting quotas than in doing what’s good for the industry? Neither suggestion is accurate. What is true is that we should be harnessing the oil and gas industry’s tremendous potential to help everyday Africans, male and female.
Empowering women through the oil and gas industry would have far-reaching socioeconomic benefits.
“Women are often the linchpins of their communities, playing key roles in ensuring the health, nutrition, education and security of those around them,” stated Oil and Gas Extraction Industry in East Africa: An African Feminist Perspective, a 2014 paper released by Akina Mama wa Afrika (AMwA), a regional Pan-African women’s organization based in Kampala, Uganda.
Companies, in particular, have a lot to gain by creating opportunities for women, including improved public perceptions, a stabilizing role on the African communities where they work and live, and an expanded talent pool at a time when the oil and gas industry is grappling with serious skills shortages.
So how can the sector better empower women? Making a strategic effort to recruit, hire, and retain them—across all levels—would make a tremendous difference.
First, companies can work with the government to eliminate barriers that make working in the industry difficult for females. It’s telling that, so far, only four countries in Africa have ratified the International Labor Union’s Convention No. 183, which provides guaranteed paid maternity leave, ensures breaks for breastfeeding and/or pumping, and protects women from discrimination.
Second, enforce the existing laws. A study by the International Labor Union found that even in those African countries that do require companies to provide paid maternity leave, the laws are rarely enforced, with only an estimated 10 percent of women continuing to receive salaries while on leave.
Third, consider more extensive maternity leave programs. This issue needs to be immediately addressed by both governments and the private sector. I urge governments to create responsible, sustainable laws to protect women in the workplace. Looking to countries on the continent that have already created successful maternity leave protections— like Rwanda, which provides for 12 weeks off, fully paid, and South Africa, which requires four months of leave—is a good start.