Calls rise for energy sector to improve diversity: 'It's what they call shared power'

June 12, 2020

Calls rise for energy sector to improve diversity: 'It's what they call shared power'

By Gavin Bade, Ben Lefebvre

06/12/2020 05:00 AM EDT

The demonstrations that have swept through dozens of cities and towns protesting police brutality and racism are pushing the energy industry to reckon with its own diversity problems as a new generation of the sector's workers takes to the streets to protest.

Many energy companies and industry organizations have made public gestures of support for the demonstrations sparked by a Minneapolis police officer’s killing of George Floyd. Oil giants like Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP and the industry group American Petroleum Institute all came out with statements condemning racism, as did leaders of the wind and solar energy sectors.

But those statements came from leaders of an industry that is still predominantly white, especially in the highest management positions. In the oil and gas industry, nearly three-quarters of employees were white as of 2015, according to a 2016 study from the American Petroleum Institute.

The rank and file of the wind and solar sectors are slightly more diverse, according to a 2019 report for state energy officials, but some of the highest-paid jobs are dominated by white workers. In the solar sector, 88 percent of executives are white and 80 percent are male, according to an industry survey released last year.

The oil and gas industry as a whole also has long generated complaints that it was hostile to women and minorities. And while companies have acknowledged they must take steps to reach out to communities of color, black leaders say they’re still waiting to see real action that build on their recent comments on the protests.

“Those who have statements have good statements, but from where I sit, what we want to know is what happens after your statement,” said Paula Glover, head of American Association of Blacks in Energy. “Because [a statement] that says we abhor racism and inequality, it's not that it rings hollow, but if you do nothing to back that up by making change in your organization, then it’s just words on the page.”

Scores of workers in the renewable energy space attended protests in Washington and around the country in the past two weeks. Many said they hope involvement in the movement will help diversify the energy sector.

“As renewables grow, I believe it will be led by a diverse workforce,” said an employee of the Solar Energy Industries Association who was at the protests in D.C. but requested anonymity to protect their personal safety. “It’s important to be highlighting how connected our industries are to the racial injustices that impact the lives of people literally building the new energy economy.”

Protesters from the energy sector said they want companies to not only hire more black and Latino employees, but also to focus business development on their communities and transform an industry culture that is often hostile to non-white workers.

“The system is not broken — it’s working exactly how it should for a certain population,” said Jamez Staples, a clean energy entrepreneur in North Minneapolis who attended George Floyd’s funeral last week. “Now that there’s more people of color coming up through these systems, they're realizing that they're broken or aren't functioning well and they need to be demolished and rebuilt ... to create economic models that are more inclusive.”

Industry groups say they are trying to become more diverse. API says a majority of new oil and gas jobs through 2040 will be filled by women and people of color — though that portion is smaller for managerial and C-suite positions. Leaders in the wind and solar sector have said they plan to redouble their diversity efforts in the wake of recent protests.

But many veterans of the energy industry say simply expanding their outreach through hiring practices isn’t enough. Though more companies are trying to seek out more black and Latino applicants, many today “hire for diversity and manage for assimilation,” said Kristen Graf, executive director of Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy, which mentors women in the cleantech space.

“So many people think it's just a hiring and recruitment issue, that if they can just get more diversity in the door, it all works, and we know that's not the case,” she said.

“We haven’t built the structures internally at our companies to support holistically someone who wants to bring their entire identity to the space," she added. "We’ve built these companies on structures … mostly for 40-year-old white men with kids at home.”

AABE's Glover said that without changes to corporate cultures, employees can feel like they’re wearing “the mask of the black professional” — unable to express their opinions or identities for fear of censure by white colleagues.

“That was my experience in 20 years I worked in utilities. The assumption is that we will assimilate to whatever that culture is and the company will go along the way it has always gone,” said Glover, who took part in demonstrations with her family in New Jersey this past weekend. “Most black employees probably feel the exact same way — that [companies are] hiring for diversity, but the minute I get that job there’s an expectation I will go with the flow and put on that mask so your organization doesn’t have to put up with all of my stuff.”

That can mean staying silent about racial discrimination in the workplace that white managers don’t acknowledge, said Glover. Other times, even outward professionalism still leaves black employees exposed to overt prejudice.

“As a clean energy leader and a black man, I often go to conferences and gatherings where I am one of a few, if not the only black person in the room,” wrote Devin Hampton, CEO of software firm UtilityAPI, in a popular LinkedIn post circulating around the energy industry. “I cannot count the amount of times other attendees have asked me to fetch them something or to park their car because they assume that I am also a support staffer. It doesn’t matter that my name tag says ‘CEO,’ they are not looking for that. They have all the info they need by seeing the color of my skin.”

Addressing these culture issues will require industry leaders to be “self-reflective” and identify circumstances where employees of color feel uncomfortable with company talk or policies. And at the current moment, Glover said that means being open and flexible with black employees in particular who are disturbed by recent police killings. She pointed to Gil Quiniones, president and CEO of the New York Power Authority, who addressed the protests directly in a video for employees and followed up with town hall meetings with diversity experts.

"If you are a black or mixed race employee … please know I see you, I hear you and you work in an organization that values and cares about you," said Quiniones in the June 1 video. "If you are not a black or mixed race employee, it is critical to understand the importance of solidarity, listening and figuring out ways that you can support your coworkers during these challenging times."

But fully addressing the sector’s racial issues will require more than just cultural changes, said black leaders. When it comes to selling new products or finding contractors, black and Latino communities are often afterthoughts, even for the politically progressive clean energy industry. A 2019 study found that even when income is held constant, predominantly black communities have almost 70 percent fewer rooftop solar installations than predominantly white ones.

Energy firms that want to stand with the Black Lives Matter movement should prioritize low-income black and Latino communities for new energy projects, products and jobs, said Staples, who is building a solar energy training facility for the predominantly black neighborhoods on Minneapolis' north side.

“What can the white community in power do? They can reflect upon themselves and say how can I advance what [black communities] are trying to do, instead of just what I want to do,” Staples said. “It's what they call shared power.”

So far, scholars say it’s too early to tell whether the broad-based demonstrations will change investment and hiring dynamics throughout the energy industry, but even skeptics say the scale of the emerging movement against racism could drive significant change.

“I often take it with a grain of salt when [companies] say they’re going to do something, but on the other hand, this is a pretty destabilizing moment,” said Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts who studies workplace inequality issues. “Big companies do change, sometimes for market reasons but other times for political pressure reasons.”

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