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New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

Leading the change: energy company CEO speaks about gender diversity


4 min read

Head and shoulders photo of Alistair Phillips-Davies, Chief Executive Officer of SSE Photo: SSE
Alistair Phillips-Davies, Chief Executive Officer of SSE

Photo: SSE

Alistair Phillips-Davies FEI, Chief Executive of electricity utility SSE admits that while his company may lack the scale of larger rivals Shell or BP, it is investing in renewable energy (4 GW capacity of onshore and offshore wind and hydro). At the same time, this electrification challenger is working to improve the gender balance of the energy industry, and within its own corporate structures, he tells New Energy World Senior Editor Will Dalrymple.

SSE is just one of the UK energy companies invited to participate in the Energy Leaders’ Coalition (ELC), an initiative launched in 2018 by POWERful Women to gather leadership together to discuss diversity and inclusion. (POWERful Women is supported by the Energy Institute and marks its tenth anniversary this year.)


Phillips-Davies himself, who has been CEO since July 2013, has been involved in the ELC since the start, and is the 2024 Chair. In discussing the workings of the ELC, he first credits Louise Kingham, former Energy Institute CEO (who helped set up the ELC); Georgina Worrall, head of POWERful Women; and current Energy Institute CEO Nick Wayth.


He comments: ‘These decent, kind individuals [have] managed to breed a sense of leave your ego and your other positions at the door, come in and try and focus on this issue that’s really, really important in the energy sector.’


He says that his agenda at the ELC, following the Chairmanship of Centrica CEO Chris O’Shea last year, is to mature the organisation and ‘to try and get something a bit bigger and a bit more inspirational out of the leaders in terms of what they were going to do’.


The closed-door, confidential meetings are for CEOs and their diversity and inclusion (D&I) leads (in SSE’s case Rosie Macrae), to compare notes and share best practices. The first meeting of the year on 25 January attracted 18–20 in person, and another six or eight virtual attendees, reports Phillips-Davies. A highlight was filming short videos for social media.


He adds: ‘I have a real responsibility to bring in some new and innovative thinking for how we in the energy sector can push forward the agenda of diversity and inclusion.’


Phillips-Davies explained that diversity and inclusion doesn’t just right former historical wrongs, but also produces benefits for the majority in the here and now.


He says: ‘We tend to go with what’s safe. So if I can find a bunch of white old farts who play golf and have a glass of wine occasionally, then I feel comfortable with that.’


‘But you’ve got to have the curiosity to go in and know Dope Black Dads, for instance,’ referring to the community support organisation represented by member Umar Kankiya in a POWERful Women panel at International Energy Week; Phillips-Davies spoke alongside Kankiya.


‘That’s a bit about forcing yourself outside your comfort zone; get up every day and make sure you do something there that you aren’t entirely comfortable with; talk to somebody who isn’t in your normal group. And look: you’ll almost certainly learn something out of it.’


I have a real responsibility to bring in some new and innovative thinking for how we in the energy sector can push forward the agenda of diversity and inclusion.


And there are distinct corporate benefits of diversity, too, the CEO explained, referring to an observation made by former SSE Chair Baron Smith of Kelvin, who rose from humble origins to obtain a peerage. Phillips-Davies reports him saying that: ‘Greater diversity brings greater debate, leads to better decision-making and ultimately leads to better business delivery, whether that’s pounds, pence or shillings, or around people and hiring, or how we treat and deal with customers, all of those things are super-important.’


Gender performance
SSE’s gender diversity performance ranked fourth in the POWERful Women 2023 company board statistics. The latest figures published in its 2023 D&I report indicate that its Board of Directors was 46% female (‘a really good journey for us over the last seven years’, the CEO observes). SSE’s 12,180-strong workforce was 30% women. Now, the fraction of employees who are engineering graduates has tripled to over 25%. Figures for the Group Executive Committee and direct reports (excluding administration support) have risen to 37% at the end of March 2024, up from 34% in the 2023 report.


The SSE report also lists the difference in pay between genders; thanks partly to maternity leave, men are often paid more, and so it is at SSE, where the median UK gender pay gap was 15.3% and mean pay gap was 12.1%. In terms of bonuses, the median UK bonus gender pay gap was 14.7%, but the mean UK bonus gender pay gap was 44.3%.


Asked specifically about this last figure, Phillips-Davies admitted: ‘The person who’s likely to get the highest bonus in the company is me. And I happen to be a bloke. I’m going to skew the figures quite badly, because my bonus can be a lot. Regrettably at the moment, we’ve got three blokes who are executive directors, and they get the three biggest bonuses in the place,’ he adds, referring to his colleagues Chief Commercial Officer Martin Pibworth and Chief Financial Officer Barry O’Regan.


On the other hand, he argues that such is the extent of competition for female talent at the highest levels of management today that the pay gap for them has actually reversed. ‘You’re going to pay more for a senior female than you are for senior male because you’re going to have less of them, and because people are looking for them.’


In addition, SSE has also supported female staff through its own policies, by improving leave and benefits for maternity, adoption and paternity. It also encourages female returners, who come back to the company after an extended break to, for example, raise children, by paying over the odds for part-time work: five days’ pay for four days’ work, for example.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author only and are not necessarily given or endorsed by or on behalf of the Energy Institute.