Why Shell Wants More Women At The Top
Josefine van Zanten, Global Head, Diversity & Inclusion, Shell
“It is a fact that more women graduate from University than men and it is a fact that many of them graduate at the top of their class. That is the reality that we operate in.” Welcome to the modern world of gender balance. The comment comes from Josefine van Zanten, Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Royal Dutch Shell.
It is not often that you hear businesses talk about making sure they don’t hire too many women in relation to men. But if an organisation is committed to balancing the genders to get the right complementary mix of skills and capabilities, then it has to make sure it doesn’t tip too far one way or the other. The pressure to protect men in the balance is likely to continue as women become the overwhelming majority of talent.
In a recent article in an OECD report, Higher Education to 2030, Stéphan Vincent-Lancriu forecast the percentage of women graduates in the coming decades. For example, in the Netherlands, where Shell is head quartered, the percentage of women graduates is set to rise from 56% in 2005 to 70% in 2015. This is not going to be all that unusual. Vincent-Lancriu forecasts that by 2015 the percentage will be over 60% in 21 OECD nations. And, as in the Netherlands, it will be over 70% in Hungary, Mexico, New Zealand, Sweden and the UK.
Shell’s diversity agenda
“Shell actively pursues Diversity and Inclusion in several domains: gender, ethnicity (race), sexual orientation, disability, generations and nationality; all are considered equally important. The company measures nationality and gender, as making a company better for women and people from different cultures, makes it better for everyone. However, the gender balance quickly swings too far in favour of the men the higher up you go,” says van Zanten.
Among the company’s senior level managers and executives, 13.6% were women as of year-end 2008, up from 10.5% in 2004. To combat this, the company has set a target of reaching 20% over the long term. These are the top 1800 or so executives and senior managers, responsible for large businesses. “Many of these roles are equivalent to CEOs of medium-sized firms and below”, says van Zanten.
“Among the company’s senior level managers and executives, 13.6% were women as of year-end 2008, up from 10.5% in 2004. To combat this, the company has set a target of reaching 20% over the long term.”
Four years ago, Shell commissioned research into why more women did not stay at Shell and progress to the top. The result of this has been the embedding of a set of processes, which provide the backbone to the effort to reach the 20% target today.
There are many initiatives. But some notable ones include targets to place women on shortlists for posts in management and above, a women’s career development programme and gender training for managers. “More than 5,000 managers have gone through our gender culture courses,” says van Zanten, “which exposes them to the differences between women’s and men’s cultures and how it can impact behaviours.” The purpose is to get across that there are different ways of doing things and that one way should not exclude the other.
Stereotyping starts early
This is important, says van Zanten, because there is still a lot of stereotyping which starts at an early age which might damage a woman’s confidence. “Young women are not encouraged enough at school, teachers don’t spend enough time building their self-esteem particularly in Europe. There are not enough women professors as role models to help young women see that the sky’s the limit.”
So, van Zanten hopes that managers will become more sensitive to the different ways women approach work and life. “When you hear a woman say that her team performed very well, the next question should be: ‘Well, who managed the team? Who was in charge of making the team so visible and so successful?’ So, instead of recognising leaders who lead from the front, also recognise those who lead from behind”. Also, she adds, don’t call a woman aggressive when she is being assertive.
“When you hear a woman say that her team performed very well, the next question should be: ‘Well, who managed the team? Who was in charge of making the team so visible and so successful?’”
David Lougham, MD, Shell Norske & interim EVP, Exploration & Production, Shell Europe
David Loughman, who runs Shell’s business in Norway (Norske Shell) and has just been appointed as the interim Executive Vice President over Shell’s exploration and production operations (EP) in Europe agrees that it is very hard to shift ingrained mental models. “I think most of my male colleagues would say they fully understand the case of diversity, that they see it and that they understand why we need to promote it. But they are still carrying around in their heads very deeply embedded mental models of what the balance between the sexes looks like. It is not easy to shift. It remains below the iceberg, below the water line of visible differences between individuals, and is a very big barrier to moving things on.” Loughman is in no doubt that the training programmes organised by the Diversity & Inclusion department can be life changing.
The power of diversity training
When he worked in the US, he saw how a group of middle-aged white males had their preconceived views challenged and how this changed them. He knows from personal experience how powerful this kind of training can be. In the US, a diversity coach mentored Loughman. She showed him that he still needed to reflect on his innermost thoughts about race. “I realised that the issue was not around fear or antipathy – I had lived in Africa and had many African friends – but it was to do with expectations. What was I prepared to expect from them? So that was the lesson for me, which was very powerful.”
“I think most of my male colleagues would say they fully understand the case of diversity, that they see it and that they understand why we need to promote it. But they are still carrying around in their heads very deeply embedded mental models of what the balance between the sexes looks like.”
Loughman recognises that these kinds of shifts are very hard to move. To improve the gender balance at the higher levels, he believes two things must happen. First, it must be very clearly articulated that there is an added value in having more women in leadership. It needs to be viewed as a “value proposition” equivalent to any other that drives the value in the business. In politics it is clear that women vote and therefore there is a clear value in winning their support. There needs to be something similar in business.
On this, Loughman is very clear. Women bring critical skills and attributes to a team that makes it perform better. He has seen this take effect in Norske Shell, following the recruitment of more women to the board to comply with the country’s quota that at least 40% of a company’s board had to be comprised of women. “Women listen to what people actually say, they test for understanding and they look for the collaborative solution. You also get a lot of discussion on the emotional side. What is the mood in the company on this? How do people respond to this in terms of feelings and motivations?” This is very different, he adds, from a board of men, who sometimes can be seen to be most concerned with their “prestige in the board context.”
The “rule of two” – making sure women influence teams
He believes so strongly in the value of women to teams that Loughman applies the “rule of two”, striving to have at least two women appointed to a team. This makes sure that the female influence is brought to bear on the team. He believes that when men, no matter how sceptical, see the benefits of the new gender balance, they soon come to accept the business case.
In two cases, Loughman has had a chance to witness the contribution women have brought to teams (one at Shell and one external). “What I saw in both cases was a very different team dynamic. I saw the women bring their value systems with them, their ways of communicating, their peripheral vision on sensitive issues, their understanding of the team and their desire to solve problems as a team as opposed to having conversations in the corridor.” It convinced Loughman that they had to get away from tokenism and proactively seek more qualified women for his leadership team.
The second drive for change must come from society, says Loughman. Surprisingly perhaps, he says, Norway is a traditional society. Women do the housework and men replumb the house or fix the roof. The result, he says, is that men rarely take up the offer provided by the government for paternity leave (the parental leave in Norway is usually between nine and 12 months, making it possible for both parents to share the period between them). Therefore, he personally supports the argument for making it mandatory that men and women should share the parental leave to take care of their children.
“Women listen to what people actually say, they test for understanding and they look for the collaborative solution. You also get a lot of discussion on the emotional side. What is the mood in the company on this? How do people respond to this in terms of feelings and motivations?”
Peggy Montana, EVP, Supply & Distribution, Shell
Peggy Montana, Executive Vice President Supply and Distribution at Shell, agrees that it is tough to push the change forward. The policies are all there, she says, but there are certain issues making it hard to make change quickly. Pregnancy is about the best notice a manager could be given for something that will happen in advance, she jokes. “Yet, in the past it always seemed to be a surprise to the managers who had to fill the position while the woman went on maternity leave.”
The need for role models
Shell has got much better at dealing with these kinds of issues, she says, but it still has further to go. They need more role models taking up part-time options to show that it works as an alternative career path. She says that the women’s networks have really helped women at Shell to share their experiences and deal with specific daily problems. There is plenty of flexibility in the workplace to accommodate personal needs and circumstances.”
The big challenge for women, Montana says, is in “navigating the balance” between work and family life. “Getting this right might mean accepting that you cannot run a refinery, which requires 24/7 presence, at a particular time in your life.” But, she says, there are alternative jobs that women can take on which are less consuming and provide plenty of “stretch”.
In Montana’s business, all managers must ensure that women are on the shortlist for hires in management and above – this makes them widen their networks to find women candidates outside the usual networks. She also believes that role models are important. She mentions one woman manager who they moved from Malaysia to Oman and then back again. High-profile women such as this influence attitudes which cascade down.
“The big challenge for women is in ‘navigating the balance’ between work and family life. Getting this right might mean accepting that you cannot run a refinery, which requires 24/7 presence, at a particular time in your life.”
There is no doubt that women bring much needed leadership capabilities to the tough business environment all businesses are experiencing today. Montana expresses the point well. “Anyone can manage in the good times but it takes real leadership to manage in hard times. The strengths women bring are around a higher level of empathy in terms of dealing with difficult situations and helping make sure people feel cared for, regardless of the outcomes. They also tend to have a fairly tough inner core, which can make them very resilient and able to work through tough times. And they often have a longer term view.”
It is hard to say how long it will take Shell to reach its 20% and raise the game further – but there is clearly an ingrained corporate commitment to diversity and inclusion, which will help. Can Shell measure the impact of its gender training programmes? “How do you measure the impact of rain that is falling?” is van Zanten’s female reply to a very masculine question. “You can’t but you can know whether things look right or improve over time.”
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