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The business case for reducing unconscious bias in the oil & gas industry

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Oilfield Technology,

“It would be bad enough if these statistics were just an embarrassment, but all the research shows they are bad business, which is a luxury the industry just cannot afford at the moment.”

This is Francis Gugen’s (Chair IGas plc) response to a PwC report, Igniting Change 2: Building the pipeline of female leaders in energy report published this year in May on behalf of POWERful Women, which evidenced that only 7% of all oil and gas board seats, and only 4% of executive board seats, are held by women.

The low percentage of women in senior roles in the oil and gas industry is in stark contrast to industry as a whole. The target set by the Davies Report (2011) recommended that by 2015, boards of the FTSE 100 should be 25% female and this target has largely been met, with the overall figure for last year being 26.1%.

Why does this matter for the oil and gas Industry?

Diversity brings richer thinking, innovation and higher performance and this is backed up by research. The Centre for Talent Innovation in New York carried out a study looking at the impact of diversity in teams. They noted that teams exhibiting both gender and race diversity were 45% more likely to expand their market share over a 12-month period.

Gugen’s assertion that lack of female representation at board level is financially damaging is consistently supported by research findings. The Women in business: the value of diversity study published in 2015 by accountancy firm Grant Thornton, found that publicly traded companies with male-only executive directors missed out on £430 billion of investment returns in 2014. 

Why is there a gender imbalance?

While the more obvious reason for this starts with the imbalance at degree level of STEM subjects, the success of women in this sector and their ability to progress their careers to more senior roles could be affected by our unconscious bias, sometimes referred to as implicit bias. 

Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

Next time you enter an airport departure lounge and are deciding where to sit, you’ll be making split second decisions about the people who are sitting there. Decisions based on your own values and beliefs, your previous experiences, the life you have led, the people you have interacted with. Your brain filters this information, thin-splices the data and helps you make decisions, without you even realising it. This is your unconscious bias in action.

As humans, we are naturally drawn to ‘people like us’ (this is known as the PLU factor). We tend to have friends like us, work with people like us, and even live in the same streets as people like us. But when we spend too much time with ‘people like us’, we take the risk that we might all start to think along the same lines - so called ‘group think’ - and that can diminish an organisation’s effectiveness.

You may think that your organisation doesn’t suffer from unconscious bias, and often the unintentional consequences of it. This is unlikely given how widespread it is. In America, for example, 60% of corporate CEOs are over 6 ft tall, even though only 15% of the American male population are over 6 ft tall. Does this reflect the unconscious attributions we give to tall people?

So how do you determine the level of unconscious bias in your company and help employees avoid it?

A good starting point is the online test on Harvard’s Project Implicit, which can be found at

Here are a more few tips for mitigating unconscious bias in your organisation:

  • Raise personal awareness of how unconscious bias influences what individuals say and do.
  • Get staff to think about how they treat people differently and question why that is.
  • Ask teams to call each other out when they see unconscious bias in action.
  • Encourage employees to think about how they should act differently as a result of increased awareness of their unconscious bias.
  • Review your recruitment process to determine how unconscious bias shows up, from advertising through to selection, and determine what can be changed and how.

Given the mounting evidence from studies like those mentioned earlier, the oil and gas industry could do well to follow the lead of the many high-profile organisations who are actively investing to reduce unconscious bias. NASA recently spent nearly US$75 000 on unconscious bias training, and the US Justice Department is providing ‘implicit bias’ training for its agents.

For a free fact sheet and more information on unconscious bias visit the Talentsmoothie website at

Adapted from a press release by David Bizley

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