Industry article

How can energy firms retain their female staff?

Photo of Jade Brar-Haase
Jade Brar-Haase
Posted on 19 Jun 2023 · 8 mins read

With the retention of female professionals in the energy industry dropping, this blog looks at the reasons why firms are struggling to hold onto talent and what they can do to reverse this trend

The retention of staff is proving problematic for firms across almost every sector, and energy is no different. While huge efforts have been made to broaden the pool of talent within the industry and to attract more people from diverse backgrounds to work within it, less has been done to keep these people, with many – particularly female – professionals choosing to leave for pastures new after short periods of time. A recent feature in Utility Week broached this subject and included the views of several senior energy firm managers who looked to identify how to solve this growing challenge; but why are so many women leaving the sector and what can employers do to stop this from happening?

Retention falling

You don’t need us to tell you that, like so many others, the energy sector is suffering from skills shortages and although a number of schemes have been launched over the past decade to attract more women into the industry, momentum is certainly slow. According to data from the Office of National Statistics, the number of women working within the energy arena rose overall from 2017-2021 but began to decline from 2020 onwards and, more worryingly, the level of females in management, director, and senior-level positions has, in fact, declined by 24% since 2017.

These slowing recruitment rates, combined with the growth in the number of women leaving the sector, have spelled major trouble for the industry as a whole. As Louise Parry, director of people and organisational development at Energy & Utility Skills, says, retention is the major problem. “We can see women are joining the sector. But what we can also see is that they’re leaving pretty much at the same levels as they’re joining. So, the diversity of the workforce, as a result, isn’t going to change.”

It's only fair to highlight that the lack of gender diversity isn’t an issue across the board, and there are some firms that are doing better than others in this regard. The National Grid leadership team, for example, has 38% of its positions held by women, while on its board this rises to 40%. Across the entire organisation female professionals make up 28% of the workforce, 2% more than was recorded in 2018. Energy UK, meanwhile, has 43% of its board positions held by female experts. While these rates aren’t perfect, they are better than the majority of the energy sector. There is also a clear demand for change and for greater levels of diversity. Indeed, there are a number of major events scheduled which are focused on boosting diversity within energy and its associated industries, including the upcoming Equity, Diversity and Inclusion conference that we are sponsoring on 29th June in conjunction with ENA, Energy UK and Ofgem.

Cultural challenges

Obviously, the broader social and political climate has not helped with recruitment or retention, with many professionals choosing to leave the country, not just the sector, following the Brexit vote in 2016, with another wave of departures following the pandemic. However, some commentators believe the energy sector in particular is suffering from a culture problem. According to one anonymous quote from a report conducted by the Royal Academy of Engineering, in many corners, women aren’t held in the same regard as their male counterparts, with the interview participant saying, “I’m a woman working in energy and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked to make the tea.”

But how can firms change what seems to be an embedded issue?

Firstly, employers need to do more to highlight success stories and utilise more role models of women who hold senior-level positions. This doesn’t just benefit female professionals, but also helps to shift the dial more broadly. Many women within energy simply don’t see clear examples of progression within the industry and therefore can’t envisage themselves holding executive or board-level roles. In practice, this means putting senior-level and high-achieving women forward as representatives for media opportunities and as spokespeople when company announcements are made. While this may feel forced, as the saying goes, “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”

Another key approach that more organisations need to consider is adopting more of a blend of working models, and then promoting them more effectively. The pandemic inadvertently helped in this regard and businesses across the board now have higher proportions of their workforce working from home or on a flexible basis. Rightly or wrongly women still often require more flexibility to balance home-life pressures with their careers, so firms that can offer options like job shares or part-time roles are likely to benefit from improved retention rates, particularly with female professionals.

Long term solutions

A longer-term solution is to develop relationships with schools, colleges and other institutions over a number of years and to utilise the aforementioned female representatives to show younger women that energy really is a viable career option for them. This will not only benefit recruitment but will also help to establish trust between the individual and your organisation over a longer time period, and will likely deliver a greater degree of loyalty with them, as well as enabling your firm to embed and reinforce its culture with future talent.

More broadly, employers can also boost retention by creating jobs that enable individuals to feel truly valued and that provide a real purpose. Again, this will help with not only talent attraction, but also retention; after all, who doesn’t want to feel as if their voices are being heard, regardless of whether they are a new hire or not? Fairly straightforward solutions can be put in place to achieve this, including providing access to senior team members and ensuring that new starters feel that someone is listening to their ideas.

Again, at an organisational level, newer generations also want more of a focus on employee wellbeing and to feel part of a corporate culture that champions diversity and inclusion. Major employers are changing expectations about what employment can offer and all firms need to follow suit.

Ultimately, your company recruitment can be as strong as you like but without effective retention methods being put in place it means nothing as the churn of female talent will only worsen. And without making robust changes to company culture and delivering true representation, firms will only see these issues worsen over time, leaving them with even more talent challenges than they face at the moment.

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