When inclusion got personal

Written by:

Katie Mehnert

If there's anything I can attribute to my experience in oil and gas, its the benefit of working in two international companies on teams with very diverse people.

I shake my head though, because nothing about the energy industry is racially or gender diverse.

I was lucky.

It wasn't until I joined Shell almost 20 years ago that I had a true appreciation for what it meant to work in a multi-cultural workplace. But before we get too excited, the energy industry, especially oil and gas, is not particularly diverse. While I often write about the numbers around gender, the numbers are really sobering when it comes to race in energy. And the racial gap when it comes to pollution is a whole other worthy discussion.

My first assignment was managing a multi-ethnic team in six geographies.

Back then we were the pioneers of early morning teleconferences and the use of global technology. Years of growing up in the Deep South, I knew racism existed but I often kept quiet when I heard things I didn't agree with or things that were wrong. Racism doesn't just exist in America. The Chinese, Malaysians, Britons, Africans, and many nations have fought over race and in my new role I observed racism inside and outside of an American lens.

As a manager at Shell I was expected to apply the values and principles of diversity and inclusion in our work each and every day. That meant encouraging a culture where everyone felt they could speak up, be heard, and included. It meant encouraging new ideas and using techniques like appreciative inquiry and leadership assessments to help shape the team's self awareness to be the very best we could be to perform the task at hand. We had more tools available to us, but it was up to us to challenge ourselves to embrace our differences and to listen and learn more from each other.

That assignment gave me a tremendous opportunity: to be the minority.

I was the only Caucasian American woman and for several months I led the team alone from America with a business counterpart in the Netherlands. I was a new kid on the block in Big Oil, however very hungry and curious to make the most of an awesome opportunity.

When you are the minority you can and will see things in a different lens. As a leader I had to earn the respect of my teammates who were not only of different race, but some were colleagues I didn't meet face to face for months, many were older than I was, and I had to learn as much as I could about nations, ethnicities and cultures very different to mine. I had to embrace different work styles, communication and culture. It was overwhelming and it took a lot of emotional effort.

Feast at the banquet of knowledge

I was also very lucky when I worked at Shell that I shared a hallway with the US office of the global diversity and inclusion practice. We shared the coffee bar area and many lunches. It was in those conversations that friendships were formed that opened my world to more than just culture and history around African Americans. I learned about Pakistan, India, Africa the Middle East -- countries and nations I long only knew of based on what I read or heard through my news sources. My colleagues offices became like my library for information. However, it wasn't until I travelled the world to countries all over Mother Earth, that I truly understood what inclusion meant. And I know I still have more to learn.

Awkward moments are healthy

Years later when I took up a senior leadership role in safety at BP, I was taking an advanced course in D&I with other executives. The instructor asked us to share a time in our childhood when we were exposed to racism or sexism. Talk about a very odd moment. The whole room filled with a sense of awkwardness. No one wanted to speak.

After moments of silence, I raised my hand

As my voice trembled, I explained about a time when I remember getting in trouble for using the "n" word at school when I was 7 or 8 years old. I was in grade school in New Orleans. I felt embarrassment and shame despite knowing that this wasn't how I felt as an adult. What would my colleagues think, I remembered asking myself as I put my experience into the room.

The room grew even more silent. I looked in the corner of my eye and another man raised his hand to share his experience. "My grandparents were members of the KKK," he shared. My colleague next to me, a very accomplished African American woman who became a trusted colleague and friend, reached her hand out and squeezed mine saying "thank you for being honest and starting the conversation." I was relieved but in so many ways didn't realize that my journey was also just beginning.

We all have a story.

Actually we all have many stories of exposure to racism, sexism or xenophobia in varying degrees. We've been exposed to bias. Our experiences as youth and adults have shaped our views on race, politics, and religion. And in many cases our experiences have been private or things we've not discussed, or chosen to overlook.

Last summer I watched the George Floyd case unfold and the fabric of America come unglued. Although I cannot say I was surprised. We've been overlooking these social matters way too long. I couldn't stay silent. I immediately wanted to reach out to engage with black energy leaders. I wasn't sure what to say but I knew we needed to have open sessions where we could talk. So, we spent nearly 8 hours with several black leaders in the US and UK with hundreds of you asking questions both openly and anonymously.

It was a good moment, a start, but by no means, the end.
Why Black Lives Matter in Energy with Gaurdie Banister | June 202

We either choose to remain silent or we choose to work through the emotions of racism, sexism and xenophobia. It's the taboo topic generations have been told to keep quiet about, but we aren't living in the past. To move our society forward, especially the energy transition, we must address equity.

ALLY will be intentional

For ALLY, we'll be doing what we do best: being intentional. We will do all we can to include diverse voices and faces in our work. Please reach out and share with us your networks and stories. We want ALLY to be a place where we give people of color a voice but we cannot do this alone. We need your help, too.

Making inclusion personal

So I ask you to think about when inclusion became personal for you. Maybe it hasn't yet? How can you find opportunities to be the minority so you can listen, learn and advocate more for those who need a voice? What can you do to put more inclusion into your every day life and work?

This month we've got a series on race in the workplace on the Voices of Energy podcast. I hope you'll listen in and I'd love to hear more about how you are making inclusion personal in your work and life.

Related Posts