Gender disparity in the legal oil and gas sector – Interview with Offshore Technology

Yoana Cholteeva spoke with Somaya Ouazzani, founder and CEO of London-based specialist legal search firm Mimoza Fleur, about her experience and insight into international commercial arbitration in the oil and gas sector and what she believes can make a real difference to gender equality in the industry.

While gender gaps in employment differ across the various sub-sectors, according to a 2019 study by the International Renewable Energy Agency, women in the oil and gas sector only account for 22% of the workforce, despite making up to 48% of the global labour force.

As there is a visible lack of female participation in the industry, which is also replicated in the legal side of oil and gas, we explore the reasons that might be causing this disparity and how close the recruitment sector is to bridging these gaps, especially noticeable at a senior level.

Yoana Cholteeva (YC): Could you tell me a bit more about the lack of gender diversity in the oil and gas industry?

Somaya Ouazzani (SO): When I talk about gender disparity in oil and gas, I’m specifically referring to it in the legal world. Having a search firm, I move teams of lawyers around the city, I build teams, and I move very senior partners and a lot of my work is in energy disputes.

One of the areas I specialise in is international arbitration and within that sector – oil and gas. The industry is the biggest user of this type of dispute resolution, so all of my insights are coming from that. My experience is that there are major problems with diversity and inclusivity in this legal sector.

What you tend to have is a proliferation of junior lawyers that are coming through the disputes space, particularly in international arbitration and there are plenty of good juniors doing high quality energy disputes work. But what you don’t see enough is female heads of teams, the global co-heads are almost always men; to the extent that if I see a woman, I’m surprised and can identify (probably on one hand) those firms that do have a female head or co head in the international arbitration – energy disputes – sector. It’s really dispiriting, that you can so easily remember which firms have a female head.

YC: Do you think the industry is doing enough to support diversity and inclusion in recruitment?

SO: When it comes to the legal recruitment sector, no I don’t think it does enough. I think the problem is that it doesn’t really care a great deal. I think its priority is to just put forward candidates that are statistically, on paper, and at first sight, most likely to get the job. Often, because of various gender biases, unconscious or otherwise, men are more likely to get the job in this space than women. So no, not enough is being done in recruitment and in the legal industry as a whole.

We’re making strides, but there’s still a hell of a lot more to do in international arbitration and especially the oil and gas sector. I mean, the oil and gas sector is an industry that is always under scrutiny, whether it’s because of geopolitical issues or climate change profiteering. So, they’re not averse to scrutiny from a gender lens either, but it’s just too reactive and not proactive enough.

Until maybe May 2020, so much of it was just tokenism. And now, I think because of the pandemic, people are speaking out about the difficulties with wellbeing and work-life balance; their struggles female professionals have encountered, particularly women in law. Where I’ve seen some really positive progress is when law firms are tendering clients like BP, for example, or some of the big super majors of the world, those clients are telling law firms: ‘Give us your diversity statistics, how many female partners do you have, what’s the ratio of male to female partners, what’s the gender pay gap, what is your working from home policy like?’.

As a consequence of that, it’s making law firms and energy disputes teams think much more about it, but we’re just at the beginning.

YC: What are the benefits for organisations that come with diverse talent pools?

SO: From an international arbitration perspective, and note the extent to which the oil and gas sector uses international arbitration more so than any other, [diversity] adds a lot more legitimacy to arbitration.

Secondly, I think when having a better focus on gender diversity, you end up with teams that are a lot more collegiate, a lot more outcome focused, [you get] a lot more collaborative teams that tend to stay together a lot longer and that sustain a high performing yet equal and inclusive culture.

You have more equality and a much better handle of the complexities of work, teams, firms, even clients. You find that teams are better supervised, better managed. You find greater efficiencies within teams and, let’s face it, the more diverse your team is, the more diverse your contributions, your perspectives, and your outlooks will be.

YC: What strategies do you think should be used in order for women to overcome these obstacles?

SO: I think there are a few things, probably a key one is consciousness raising. Making sure that it’s not just the law firms, but it’s the state-owned entities, it’s the governments, it’s the super majors. They all need to be thinking about gender inclusivity. It’s making sure that they all truly understand the gender bias, the unconscious bias, the lazy assumptions, the failure to provide an infrastructure that allows women to get properly involved. By raising consciousness in this way, you will make people think about gender diversity.

The second thing is that there needs to be a much greater awareness of work-life balance. Because you will find that sectors like oil and gas are very, very global. So, most people in this space, certainly in the legal world, will be working across multiple time zones. They will be working with international clients, there will be a lot of business travel involved, it will be very high value work and that makes for very long hours for everyone and this is particularly problematic for female lawyers.

That’s a problem because nine times out of 10, they are the primary carer or heavily involved with their children’s care. So, if they’re expected to go on a business trip to an oil and gas super major for a week or two, they’ve got to think about this environment. And work-life balance is really required for people to thrive and do well in their space. To sustain their output and excellence.

I think the other thing that I have thought about is whether there is a place for positive discrimination, and I know that’s controversial and not everybody likes that, including women. But I think across the board, whether it’s BP, whether it’s any oil and gas-based supplier, they need to make sure that at the helm they have both male and female leaders. So, having co-heads is a perfectly plausible way of getting more females into senior level roles, specifically for law firms with oil and gas teams whether that be disputes, infrastructure, corporate etc.

I think there’s definitely something to be said for having a male and female co-head because of what you just asked me. Because of the diversity of perspective, because it raises consciousness, and because you know you can’t really understand the struggle if you don’t have those lived experiences. It’s a bit like the Black Lives Matter movement, you have lots of black equality advocates saying that you can’t really, meaningfully, understand what they’re trying to do because you’ve never been on the receiving end of it.

YC: What else could be done?

SO: I think what we’re seeing now in the legal world is that there’s a better use of artificial intelligence, metric-based recruitment policies, and practices to allow for recruitment to be streamlined, so that you can specifically hone in on the number of female lawyers or the number of black and minority ethnic lawyers. And I think the oil and gas industry needs to make better use of that.

Again I use the example of BP, but whether it’s BP’s in-house legal team having a database of female lawyers specialising in oil and gas, as an easy fix solution, that’s what they should do to allow for an element of affirmative action. And the other thing is the need to be aware of unconscious bias and gender inclusivity when it comes to the appointment of what we call arbitrators.

I just really can’t emphasise enough the importance of a more joined up approach. And so, if we want to see better gender diversity in the oil and gas sector, every key player in the sector needs to play its part, whether that’s the law firm, the oil and gas super major, the state-owned entity, or the government that’s instructing firms. Every single entity needs to be actively mindful of diversity and the problems that women face. Truly, without there being the right infrastructure to allow women to properly participate, it’s all just going to be tokenism until then.

We’re getting there and there are some fantastic females in the oil and gas sector as a whole, and especially in law; some real rising stars. Some real mavericks, and they’re very talented in the way that they run their practices, but they’re an exception to the rule, I’m afraid and notwithstanding how brilliant they are, they just don’t get the same ‘air time’, the same visibility.

This interview was published in Offshore Technology, 26 January 2021, here

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