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Energy in Conversation: Balancing act

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In the first of a series of ‘Energy in Conversation’ informal discussions, the Energy Institute’s Sarah George, Engagement Manager, Knowledge, talks with EI CEO Louise Kingham about career breaks and achieving a good work-life balance.

Like many STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industries, the energy sector struggles to attract and retain a diverse workforce, in particular women. Indeed, of the top 80 energy companies in the UK, 46% had no women on their boards and 84% had no female executive board members as of Q1 2017 (PwC 2017). 

A major stumbling block preventing women from reaching later stages of their career is negotiating a career break and balancing work and family life. These issues are not just about employee wellbeing – ethnic and gender diversity are consistently shown to be positively correlated with financial returns (McKinsey 2018), and even safety (BHP 2017).

As I approach a career break myself – I’m expecting my first child in May – I had questions about planning time out and managing work-life balance with a family. Working at the Energy Institute, I have a role model in Louise Kingham – Chief Executive and mother of three. I invited Louise to sit down and share her insights with the many employees and employers facing these issues.

Sarah George (SG): Shall we start by talking about your own experience? Tell me where you were in your career when you started a family and what your experience was like. 

Louise Kingham (LK): My experience was a little bit different in that I had, relatively speaking, already got into a senior role before my first pregnancy. I was CEO at the age of 27, and I was pregnant with my first child at 34. So I was lucky in that I wasn’t worrying so much about what that would do for the next step of my career.

But, nevertheless, you still have this feeling of: ‘If I take time out, is that going to hold me back in some way?’ Because of the job I do, the arrangements made had to be bespoke for me. For me to step away completely would just be too difficult. So I chose to stay in touch more frequently. Inevitably, though, however keep-in-touch, inclusive and friendly your environment is, you do feel out of place on your return. You feel like everything’s been happening and you’ve missed it. And you’re not quite sure how you fit in. 

SG: Did you find after you started a family that your career goals, priorities and idea of what a good work-life balance is, changed? 

LK: Yes. I didn’t have anything that resembled a work-life balance before I had Jack. It made me introduce some discipline, which is really good. So, rather than going to every function that I was invited to, I became really selective. A lot of it was just me realising I didn’t have to do everything. That helped me to manage my time better.

Even though we’d already set up flexible working at the EI, it was very hard for me to leave at 4pm when people were still sat at their desks. I had to hold my head up high and boldly walk out, even though I felt terribly guilty – despite the fact that I’d been working since 7am. Just physically getting up and going while other people were still here was quite difficult to deal with, I think largely in my head rather than anyone else’s! That’s a story I've heard a lot from other women.

SG: Although you’ve got bespoke arrangements at work, you must also have quite a good set-up at home with your husband. Was he in a position to take shared leave or do the school run? 

LK: When I had my first child, shared leave didn’t exist – although my husband did have a degree of flexibility at work. With dual careers, working flexibly makes life so much easier – for the mum, in particular. This is a big challenge that companies need to work harder at solving. My husband didn’t get such a warm reception to working flexibly as I did. It was seen as the mother’s problem as opposed to a parent’s problem. I also think there’s a little bit of anxiety about a man asking for paternity leave. My husband’s employer would have never believed that possible, so we didn’t even ask – culturally, it just wasn’t encouraged. 

SG: I think that’s still an issue now. Shared leave was introduced by the UK Department for Business two years ago, but there’s only been 2% uptake to date.

LK: I think men are particularly uncomfortable with asking for parental leave. For centuries men have been at work thinking they’ll always be at work; as they don’t have the babies, they won't be taking career breaks. But I think that a lot of that is cultural, because we don't treat parental leave as a normal ask for men. Today’s businesses could help change that attitude. An employer should say: ‘These are policies for everybody’, as opposed to leaving people to assume that they are for women only, because we have the children. 

SG: What can companies do to support parents in taking advantage of the policies that do exist? 

LK: It is all about the creation of the culture that you want to sustain. The first place to start is to lead by example. So, that's an extension of ‘leave at 4pm and don’t feel guilty’. We have to stand up and be seen to be doing these things; living these policies for people to think it is okay. Then people have to see that there's no detriment to anybody for doing that. That's connected to the rewards system in an organisation, how people are appraised and how that performance is measured and celebrated. 

SG: Professionals working in energy are dealing with a rapidly changing sector. A career break like parental leave can be especially challenging because you really need to keep up. What support does the EI offer professionals to help them keep in touch and on top of their industry during leave, and when they reintegrate into their job? 

LK: There’s a range of things that we do at the EI. Mentoring support through POWERful Women, we provide ongoing professional development to the membership at large, signposting to progressive policies and encouraging people to share good practice between companies. We get CEOs together and talk about what's worked, what hasn't worked and why, so they can understand what change they can take back to their own corporations.

It is important for the employer to understand how sharp you want to stay and how connected you want to be. The employer is very conscious they don't want to intrude because you are taking a break. But, particularly for those with very technical jobs, if you need to keep up your training or something new comes along when you happen to still be on your break, you've got to be flexible enough to want to participate in that. The important part is having those conversations before you go off, to understand the expectations of each other. It’s a two-way street to stay connected. 

SG: How would you summarise the benefits to the energy industry of enabling better work-life balance and parental leave?

LK: Two words – potentially massive. The benefit of supporting people well is that they retain the talent that they have been investing in and nurturing. When you think about the challenge of the energy transition, it needs more diversity in the people making choices about how a company is going to grow, be sustainable, position itself in a lot of flux, complexity and change. If you have the same people making the same decisions and you're encouraging more group thinking rather than mixing it up, inevitably it means your decisions and business choices won't be as great as they could have been.

For me, it's very simple. Every business has the capability to identify with hard data how their business can improve by having a more diverse workforce. If the energy sector keeps fishing in a really shallow pond, it’s not going to be very healthy and it's going to get really difficult. They're on the back foot a little bit with this agenda, they need to pick up speed.

SG: Would you say your personal philosophy for work-life balance is more about compartmentalising or more about flexibility? 

LK: I think it’s determined by two things. Who you are as a person in terms of your approach to work and life in general, and what your philosophies are. But also the nature of the work that you do. I never put my job down. When I had Annie, I was back on e-mail within about 12 hours. It's a running joke here. 

SG: So, flexibility more than compartmentalising for you then? 

LK: Absolutely. But I also know people who, for their sanity, have to compartmentalise. It's probably not healthy actually, but who I am, plus the nature of my work, means that's the way I do it. My flexibility is possible as I am reasonably in control of my diary. I have enough autonomy to say ‘I’m going to get someone else to do that’, or ‘Actually, I am going to do that one’. I haven’t really got anyone breathing down my neck going ‘Why did you not pitch up at that?’ because I know better. 

SG: It sounds like it requires a certain level of confidence in what your role is and when it's okay to say ‘No’. A lot of people at early stages of their career, or who aren’t at CEO level when they're having their first child, might not have that confidence. 

LK: No – but neither did I the first time I came back. However keep-in-touch, inclusive and friendly your environment is, you do feel out of place on your return. You feel like everything’s been happening and you’ve missed it. And you’re not quite sure how you fit in.

I felt that even though I'd been in touch – not quite every day, but probably every two or three days – during all my maternity leaves. That was my choice. I stayed very connected because I was anxious about coming back and feeling like a spare part. And I did – but I didn’t let anyone see that I felt like that. It wasn't confidence initially, that was sheer front – a case of ‘Don’t let them see that I feel a bit wobbly about this.’

I needed to find my way to fit back in; I needed to make everyone realise that I’m back in charge. And you’re right, there is something about already being established in a job. If you’re coming back to the same job, absolutely you should be more confident about that settling in and being able to make decisions.

SG: You mentioned something about coming back to the same role. I'm aware that employers have a requirement to offer you an equivalent role when you return. Is there an issue for some parents who take leave returning to a job which is given to them as equivalent, but which may or may not be equivalent from the perspective of career progression and responsibility?

LK: I think it is, where organisations are not clever enough at valuing the person that they’ve got. It is certainly a symptom in very large companies, where it is very difficult to treat people as individuals. It’s this culture point again that we keep coming back to. If people don’t understand and know their talent well enough, and if they haven’t had that conversation before they go on their leave, or kept in touch while they’re away, then inevitably you’ll be treated as a number rather than a person. You’ll come back and you’ll be slotted in wherever the organisation thinks it needs to slot you in, without due consideration of you as an individual.

Most women that I listen to through the POWERful Women network who have suffered at the hands of this particular issue have said: ‘Well nobody asked me what I wanted to do. Nobody asked me what my ambition was when I returned.’ They felt very passed over. They felt that their absence had been a derogatory thing, which would now hold them back. They felt they would progress more slowly and potentially even be overlooked; that they’d made their choice and had to live with the consequences. 

SG: I think that's the concern. It's very difficult on paper to demonstrate that two jobs are not equivalent. When, for the person who has been swapped to a new role, it's very clear to them that it doesn't carry the same level of responsibility or the same opportunity for progression, or it isn't on the trajectory that they themselves wanted to be on. What is your advice for people who find themselves faced with that situation?

LK:  The first step – even if it is not offered – is to force the conversations about what your expectations are before you have gone, so the organisation has no excuse. But when you come back, if you find yourself in that situation, it's your responsibility to speak up and articulate why you're not happy, what is wrong and what the solution could look like. Don't put the onus on the employer to work it all out; because, if they’ve done this to you in the first place, they’re probably not being particularly creative anyway and they’ll need a bit of help. If they're not responsive to that, then your next choice is very straightforward. You look elsewhere and find an organisation that is.

SG: You’ve shared your advice for managing work-life balance in the workplace. Do you have any advice for partners? Just because your employer might be flexible, you might not have the same flexibility at home. 

LK: I think that's probably the toughest bit, because you do have to compromise. Again, it’s about understanding what your needs are as individuals, but also as a family unit. How are you going to operate? How are you going to make this work? Is everyone going get out of that what they need? Is everyone going to feel safe, secure and happy about that?

For most people I know – particularly when it’s the first time – having a child is a stressful time, it’s all new, nobody really knows what they’re doing. So keep talking, no matter how exhausted you are. However tired you are, you have to keep connected. Communication and honesty are key. And when it's stressful, say so. Don't try to be superwoman or superman. If it’s too much, then shout out.

Having a child is difficult and tiring. But if you’re a strong unit, you'll recognise that – whether you're mum plus mum, or dad plus dad, or mum and dad. Whatever the family model is, those things should be constant. Being honest, talking to each other, and putting your hand up when it gets too hard. It’s only momentary, normally. Just the act of saying ‘Help!’ can make it all a bit easier. 

Additional resources

Deloitte Insights: Six signature traits of inclusive leadership

Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion

Equate Scotland

Getting to 50/50, Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober

POWERful Women

Shared Parental Leave

Thriving Talent

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