“Concepts of diversity and inclusion are not new”

Celebrating the women in oil and gas: In this Asian Downstream Insights exclusive interview, Neeti Tandon, Global General Manager Utilities, Industrial Decarbonisation, Shell, muses over the industry’s increased diversity, and discusses the factors that lead to regional differences in gender equity in the workforce.

Please tell us a little about what you do at Shell, and how you got into the oil and gas industry.
Neeti Tandon, Global General Manager Utilities, Industrial Decarbonisation, Shell.

Thanks for your question and for taking the time to connect with me on this. I would first say that I don’t consider myself as working the oil and gas industry – instead, I see Shell as an energy company. I am an economics major by training, and my career has always been in the commercial side of the energy industry.

I joined Shell about a decade ago after having worked across government, policy, and banking sector profiles. While engineering and technology is at the heart of the energy sector, there are a lot of different career trajectories and very fulfilling career options that this industry can offer for people from all different backgrounds.

I currently lead a commercial team for our strategic partnerships with Power and Gas Utilities to support them on their decarbonisation journey. Navigating energy transitions to mitigate risks of climate change requires a very important role for strategic partnerships. No single company can drive such a massive transition in the short timespan left for humanity, considering the capital investments, coordination, policy drivers and commercial risks. The only way we can succeed is to join forces and work together. My team plays a small role in Shell to enable such partnerships.

You’ve been at Shell for over ten years now – wow! How did you make the shift from working for the Royal Bank of Scotland, to working for one of the world’s petrochemical giants, and in a role focused on industrial decarbonisation?

I was working as a Senior Manager for Risk at the Royal Bank of Scotland when a recruiter reached out to me with an opportunity for the Shell strategy team. At the time I was quite comfortable in my job, hence I was hesitant at first. But the opportunity that Shell offered me was the ability to explore a variety of profiles through clear growth paths. After joining Shell, I was able to move from Strategy, Policy, Commercial across Gas, Power, Environmental Products to now working on Decarbonization. Every few years, Shell has offered me a new learning curve and new challenges which is what keeps me interested and fully engaged.

How would you say the gender landscape in the refining and petrochemicals industry has changed? Is it becoming more inclusive?

I personally feel that I represent the energy sector more broadly than just the petrochemical industry, so I would like to broaden this question to the energy industry on a whole. In Shell, I have certainly seen a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion with a clear emphasis and focus on enabling gender policies that can retain and support women. Concepts of diversity and inclusion are not new in Shell.

An interesting anecdote is that way back in 1908, Shell was one of the first companies to come up with advertising post cards to support women’s voting rights which eventually came into effect in 1928. Globally, we now have 30% of senior positions held by women, with an aspiration to grow that further to achieve 35% representation of women in our leadership group at Shell by the end of 2025, and 40% by 2030.

When I started working in Asia, participating in conferences and customer engagements made the gender difference most visible and stark for me personally. I was often the only woman in a room full of men during meetings. I have seen that changing over the years especially in South East Asia, where there are more women visible in conferences and customer meetings. In some ways, Asian culture is still playing catch up with the West; while the transition is surely underway, I believe that it will take some time.

What does it mean to you, to be a woman working in the industry?

As a woman working in the energy sector, I find immense opportunities and thankfully a lot of flexibility to manage work and personal life. One example that comes to mind is when I moved to Singapore for Shell. I was apart from my spouse for almost eight months while he was still trying to move. This was a particularly challenging time for me to manage split households and our long-distance marriage. But my managers at Shell really supported and enabled my transition by allowing for longer duration remote working and reduced travel in the early days.

It’s also an incredibly rewarding feeling to be in this sector and to be working on challenges like decarbonisation, where my efforts would make genuine meaningful contributions to the planet and help create a better world for the next generation.

A report done by the BCG, in tandem with the World Petroleum Council, found that diversity and inclusion policies/programmes have seen a 50% increase since 2017, but women still make up 22% of the workforce – a number that has been unchanged since 2017. What are your thoughts on this?

In most graduate hiring you would find a fairly equitable distribution of gender across companies. This gender balance starts to slim down with experienced hires and senior roles.

Women often juggle domestic and professional responsibilities much more than men. As a result, many opt out of the work force voluntarily or decide to shift to less demanding jobs. Companies that allow flexible timings and work environments can attract and retain women in the workforce more effectively. I am pleased to say that Shell outperforms the sector with the percentage of women in senior positions in Shell at 27.8% at the end of 2020.

The same report found that that Europe has seen the greatest improvement in gender equity since 2017 (24% to 33%), but the APAC region has seen a decline in women’s representation. Why do you think this is so, and what should be done to bring more balance to the current workforce?

I believe that culture, and social norms contribute a lot to this regional difference. Interestingly, domestic help and family support in many Asian countries is easier to get and afford than in Europe, yet many women opt out of the workforce, driven more by cultural factors. In Europe, consistent women friendly policies, child-care benefits and concerted efforts from companies have come together to create an eco-system that enables more gender balanced workforce.

Female employee friendly policies like maternity benefits, women return-ship programmes for professionals who wish to come back after a break, mentoring and women support groups can go a long way in sustaining strong gender diversity. Shell for instance has a targeted Women’s Career Development Program (WCDP) which I personally benefited from. This is designed to help women leaders identify and enhance their leadership skills, realise what they want from their professional and personal lives, and support them in achieving their full potential.

Cultural aspects take time to change. In Japan for example, I often visited for senior engagements on energy transition and climate policy discussions. Often the Shell delegation was the only one that  included women. While many of our counterparts were nice, warm, and welcoming male leaders, they would often struggle with eye contact. If there was a male colleague from Shell in the room, he was automatically assumed to be the most senior. These cultural aspects can seem dismissive to women professionals and lead to self-doubt, and you may find a lot of such subtle behaviours in Asian countries even today. You can’t get overly sensitive in such situations but need to stay persistent and patient.

Women leadership programmes targeted at helping women cope with such cultural situations can also go a long way. These cultural trends are changing in Asia but will not transform overnight. Recognizing this, Shell also initiated specific focus for supporting Asian women talent. I do think achieving gender diversity is a marathon, not a sprint.

At the end of the day, is the increased inclusivity and diversity we see in the workforce today actually doing any good, or is it mostly performative?

That’s an interesting question. There is a lot of research to demonstrate that inclusivity and diversity is known to increase business performance as well as social well-being. According to a Wall Street Journal research in 2019, the 20 highest-performing companies in the S&P 500 based on metrics related to DE&I performance generated a higher operating profit margin (by 12%). Researchers have found gender diverse executive teams are 25% more likely to outperform, and ethnically/culturally diverse teams are 36% more likely to outperform.

In Shell, the emphasis is not just on increasing numbers for diversity but creating good and equal opportunities for women.

When countries and industries embrace diversity, not just gender, but ethnic and racial diversity, organizations in those contexts are more likely to experience higher market valuation and revenue.

What changes would you like to see in the industry, going forward?

The energy sector is rapidly changing due to the energy transition and climate change. The impact of climate change is personal as much as it is professional when you think about future generations and more specifically the future of our children.

Changes in this sector requires not only deep sector expertise, but also new innovative business models, diversity of thought and ideas. To strive for this balance, a diverse workforce will be most critical in my view that brings together the best of experience, energy and diversity. Now is the time for energy companies to ramp up their focus on diversity and inclusion efforts.