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Women in Leadership - Embracing Femininity

With fewer women in oil and gas than in almost any other industry, Gemma Littlewood reviews the business case for diversity, inclusion & equality.

  • By Gemma Littlewood
  • 15 min read
  • Mar 8, 2022
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Women in Leadership - Embracing Femininity

There are fewer women in oil and gas than in almost any other major industry. In the oil and gas industry, the number of women in senior management roles at energy firms remains stubbornly low. However, there is a strong business case for diversity, inclusion and equality. Organisations with inclusion, diversity and equality central to their business strategy have a competitive advantage. This article explores the links between typically masculine, left-brain leadership and the more typically feminine and right-brain leadership behaviours. It considers how we can all, men and women, take steps to embrace the right side of the brain and the more ‘feminine’ aspects of our personalities.

Embracing Femininity - it isn't about man versus woman

There are fewer women in oil and gas than in almost any other major industry. (Source: Catalyst) Women account for less than a quarter (22%) of employees in the oil and gas industry. As of January this year the Energy Sector represented in the FTSE 250 scores lowest for female representation in the combined Executive Committees and Direct Reports at 33.2%. Still, encouragingly this is up 5.7% from the previous year (27.%% in 2021) (Source: FTSE Women Leaders). When compared with other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) industries (often a recruiting ground for oil and gas), the Energy Sector continues to rank last. (Source: McKinsey)

This article explores the links between typically masculine, left-brain leadership and the more typically feminine and right-brain leadership behaviours. It considers how we can all, men and women, take steps to embrace the right side of the brain and the more ‘feminine’ aspects of our personalities.

Men versus women is not a zero-sum game. Men can be as caring as women and women can be as analytical and assertive as men. Our gender is who we are, not what we can be – and we must all see feminine values not as belonging to one gender but as a new form of innovation for today’s world

— John Gerzema and Michael D’Antonio

Mo Gawdat, former Chief Business Officer Google X, ‘Moonshot Factory’ and Author and Founder of 'One Billion Happy’, paints a powerful image in discussion with Steven Bartlett, Diary of a CEO (2021) when he was asked the question ‘What are the failures you cherish the most?’. (Source: The Diary of a CEO)


“I have failed for many, many years to empower my feminine side. It's my biggest failure ever, still is my biggest weakness even though I've done so much better in the last five and a half years. I think our world is suffering from hyper-masculinity. And I say that with my weird deep voice, but it's the truth. We've turned it into a world of doing, which is go out there and do stuff. Mostly the wrong stuff. Mostly stuff that we don't need, mostly stuff that doesn't nourish anyone, okay? And it's because we've capitalised so entirely in our modern world, on skills like analytical thinking, linear thinking, strengths, you know, discipline, control. All of these are masculine traits, okay? 

Masculine and feminine is not man and woman. Masculine and feminine is traits that are correlated to the masculine and correlated to the feminine. All those masculine traits when you overdo them, they work against you. Strength is good, you overdo it, you become aggressive. Linear thinking is good, you overdo it, you become stubborn. And we've ignored the feminine qualities that are life-giving, nurturing, you know, intuitive, creative, playful, flowy, okay, beautiful. All of these, empathetic. We've created a world that is so lacking in all of those and I'm to blame. To become a successful executive I had to empower that masculine side until I realised that true leaders don't do, we be. And being is what the feminine is about.”

"One morning I woke up five and a half years ago and I heard my left brain tell me that's it, that's as far as I can get you without being able to connect to all of being, to go outside that shell of me versus the world, which is the masculine we're not going to go anywhere further. If there is anything that I have failed miserably to do it was to do that early enough, and if anything our world is failing to do, it is to embrace that side.


Sadly, as we empower women today, we force them to become masculine. We force them to become more competitive. We force them to become tough because the way the game is played is that way, we should empower the feminine.“

Women and Leadership – slow progress, incremental change

There are a disappointing array of statistics regarding women in leadership globally. The FTSE Women Leaders Review (2021) (previously the Hampton Alexander Report) is a Government-commissioned review. It was first undertaken in 2016, presenting two targets, one for executive committees and one for board positions. These targets aspire to see women increase their representation in the respective areas across the FTSE 100 and 200. In 2021 the review expanded its targets to include increased female representation in leadership roles. 

In 2021, only 5% of the FTSE 100 CEOs were women. This figure remains stubbornly flat, fluctuating very little over the past eight years. At the current rate, it will be 2101 before women achieve equality at the CEO level. Board representation is faring better, with female representation increasing year on year. The government set a target of 33% board representation by 2020. We have now exceeded this target. 

There is progression across leadership roles, but this remains slow, with 28.6% represented by women in 2019, 30.6% in 2020 and 32.5% in 2021. Enhancing the focus of the FTSE 100, 250, 350 and top 50 private companies to improve this area is increasingly important. 

In the oil and gas industry, the number of women in senior management roles at energy firms remains stubbornly low. According to an OECD/IEA analysis of data from just under 2500 firms classified in energy-related sectors, women make up just under 14% of senior managers, with representation strongest in the utility sector. Excluding utilities, women hold less than 12% of leadership roles. This compares with 15.5% of the 30 000 non-energy firms in the sample. (Source: IEA)

On a more positive note, the same set of data also showed there is a much higher representation of women leadership positions at large energy-related multinational enterprises, many of whom have put in place corporate policies focused on diversity and inclusion. (Source: IEA)  So change is taking place. There are also multiple industry initiatives to address the challenges such as the IEA Gender Initiative, the Clean Energy, Education, and Empowerment International Initiative, and OGUK’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Group.

However, at the very top, women are still struggling to break through. Female representation is relatively lower in more senior management positions relative to less senior management positions. 

Within the energy sector, this is particularly evident for the top posts (e.g. chair of the board, CEO, president), at less than 5%. (Source: IEA)

The main thing holding women back is lack of opportunity. If you look at the history of the world, there’s never been a point at which men freely opened the doors and welcomed women in.

— Dr Amy Jadesimi, MD, Lagos Deep Offshore Logistics
In 2021, only 5% of the FTSE 100 CEOs were women

The Complex Challenges and Barriers Facing Women Today

We women just made our own way

— Eve Howell, Head of Australia’s North West Shelf

Every year a more complex set of challenges, a shift, or deeper insight emerges on the issues and barriers facing women in the workplace. Some of the obstacles that women encounter are:

Structural Barriers

Women often experience more limited access to established informal networks and social activities, formal and informal, such as golf or happy hours.

Institutional Mindsets 

There are various types of conscious and unconscious gender bias and stereotyping in the workplace. For example, role incongruity occurs when someone holds beliefs or stereotypes about a group inconsistent with the behaviour thought to be necessary to succeed in a specific role. For example, suppose we consciously or unconsciously masculinise a leadership role, and a woman is performing that role. In that case, the woman can become less effective. Gervais and Hillard (2011) explore role congruity in politics. They found that the degree of femininity a woman possesses may have a major effect on the way a woman of political power is perceived which may impact her performance in the role. And it works the other way round. If a man is in a leadership role and society feminises that role, that man is likely to be less effective. 

Individual Mindsets 

These are the thoughts and behaviours women might have that hold them back. Data shows that women tend to stall in their progression beyond the Director level or self-select out of the workforce. Most women do not pursue C-level positions for multiple reasons, including social pressures, lack of confidence, risk aversion, valuing work-life balance or a desire to avoid politics.

Lifestyle Choices 

Women often make lifestyle choices that limit their ability to progress in their careers. These include work-life balance, family choices and breadwinner/caregiver priorities. These choices do not need to impact their capability. However, the perception is that they are barriers to career progression and therefore contribute to the leadership gender gap. Women can encounter these barriers at any given point in their careers. 

We need to break down barriers but above all we need to encourage more young women to follow their path. We cannot create leaders unless the pipeline is full. Not everyone has leadership potential, and the pool needs to be larger if more women are to achieve a place in the C-Suite.

— Marie-Jose Nadeau C.M,

Inclusion, Diversity and Equality Creates Competitive Advantage

There is a strong business case for diversity, inclusion and equality. Organisations with inclusion, diversity and equality central to their business strategy have a competitive advantage. According to McKinsey's Diversity Report in 2020, companies in the top quartile of gender diversity on executive teams were 25 per cent more likely to experience above-average profitability than peer companies in the fourth quartile. This figure was up from 21 per cent in 2017 and 15 per cent in 2014. 

However, just emphasising representation is not enough. As McKinsey highlights, ' employees need to feel and perceive equality and fairness of opportunity in the workplace.'. Organisations need to live and breathe, making it part of their organisational DNA

As we come out of the pandemic and into a post-COVID-19, endemic world, embracing diversity, inclusion and equality could be a critical enabler of recovery, resilience and growth for organisations. However, although the pandemic increased the adoption of flexible working for many organisations, conversely it has negatively impacted female representation in the workplace, accelerating existing trends and attitudes about gender roles. The Pew Research Center (June 2020) reported that 11.5 million women, compared to 9 million men, lost their jobs due to COVID-19. (Source: Gallup) Seemingly COVID-19 forced many women to return to part-time or hybrid work, potentially resulting in a loss of current and potential female leaders across organisations.

Diversity, particularly female representation in our leadership teams, is demonstrably essential and good for business. But what is it is about gender diversity in leadership roles that makes it so important? Let us consider typically feminine, right brain traits and how these might show up in leadership styles that benefit business and leadership.

The Leadership Circle is a method of assessment based on 360 feedback and the principles of the Universal Model of Leadership. The profile generated by the Leadership Circle measures 18 leadership competencies. Research has demonstrated that these competencies are leaders' most critical behaviours and skillsets. The circle divides behaviours between reactive and creative competencies. The creative leadership competencies measure key behaviours and internal assumptions that lead to high fulfilment, high achievement leadership. The reactive competencies reflect inner beliefs that limit effectiveness, authentic expression and empowering leadership.

Leadership effectiveness scores highly correlate to the exhibition of creative behaviours. The higher the creative leadership score, the higher the overall leadership effectiveness score. Business outcomes such as Return on Investment (ROI), employee job satisfaction, employee engagement and turnover significantly correlate to leadership effectiveness. The top 10% of the highest performing businesses score 80% for leadership effectiveness, calculated on the extent of creative behaviours exhibited.

Working through the dimensions behind creative leadership behaviours: relating, self-awareness, authenticity, systems awareness and achieving it is possible to draw parallels between them and more typically feminine traits or perhaps those associated with the right side of the brain. 

Why is right brain leadership so important? The right side of the brain is the primary source of emotional intelligence. It is where our emotion, intuition and creativity lie. People who use their right brain more in leadership understand the value of emotions, are relational, collaborative, more personal and creative. In a Harvard study by Jagdish Parikh, 13,000 executives credited both left and right-brained skills in their leadership styles. However, they credited 80% of their success to right-brained intuition.  

Employees need to feel and perceive equality and fairness of opportunity in the workplace - McKinsey

Men Can Be Right-Brained Too

The above is by no means a suggestion that men cannot excel in leadership, far from it. However, those that do could be more attuned to their feminine side. Likewise, there is recognition that being female does not automatically make you an effective leader. 

But perhaps there should be greater recognition for feminine traits in leadership. And we should challenge that bias towards more typically male characteristics and reactive behaviours, which are sometimes typically visualised as what someone needs to excel in leadership roles. 

If businesses can encourage the increased adoption of feminine traits in leadership roles, they are more likely to perform well. Other women are also more likely to recognise their potential to succeed and be willing to do so. 

For too long, women have looked up to men as successful role models. Men generally dominate leadership roles. The junior men and women looking up may well believe these men are doing something right. This belief could lead them to emulate the more stereotypically masculine behaviours that many male leaders exhibit, such as autocracy, obsessive ambition and arrogance which categorise as more controlling and reactive leadership traits. It is the emulation of reactive behaviours which are the exact opposite of the creative behaviours organisations want to see in all their leaders – male and female.

There can, of course, be good and bad male and female leaders. However, the world needs more women role models and men who model more right brain traits at all stages of progression to change how we view a good leader.

It touches me when girls tell me about having role models and understanding the path those women followed and how they become successful. Without having these accomplished women to look to, it is difficult for women to know how to overcome the challenging situations they will encounter.

— Dr Amy Jadesimi, MD, Lagos Deep Offshore Logistics

In Conclusion

Many messages about workplace equality remain unheard. We can individually and organisationally look to take many more actions to help these messages gain momentum. Emma Watson (2020) expresses 'I don't want other people to decide who I am. I want to decide that for myself'. 

We know that encouraging individuals to be their authentic selves benefits both the individual and the organisation. So let us encourage our future male and female leaders to embrace their authentic selves. Let's allow them to grow the feminine, right-brain leadership behaviours that will see organisations flourish beyond their existing potential. Hopefully, this will create more female and male role models and leaders adopting more creative leadership styles. Then future leaders will recognise that they do not need to emulate the typically masculine traits that we currently view as necessary to succeed.

The only way to focus on equality of talent and potential is to realise gender-equal leadership and enable men to learn different approaches from women as much as women in the past have often been told to learn from men.


A word from the author: 

I hope you have found this article thought-provoking and that it inspires you to consider embracing your femininity and right brain traits. The FTSE Women Leaders Review findings shared at the start of this article suggest we often see 'too many bystanders, too few up-standers leading for change'. Let that comment inspire us to consider making the necessary changes to promote equality across our workplace and communities. Those who don't act and do not put change agendas in place will miss out on the growth opportunities available.


Article contributions from Emma Smillie and Bryony Wood