The energy sector is one of the lowest ranked in terms of female representation in leadership positions. As such, the industry is currently facing an ageing workforce and a demand for new skills, with declining appeal among younger people.

Kate Cuic is the Recruitment Manager at Peter Norman Personnel (PNP) – an industry-specific recruitment specialist. She sat down with The Australian Pipeliner about the role of unconscious bias in the workplace and how best to overcome it.
“Unconscious bias is a human problem and neutralising it will require industry-led action beyond rules and policies,” says Ms Cuic, who has been with PNP for more than 20 years.
“When it comes to employment, unconscious decision making is the ‘gut feeling’ based on underlying attitudes and stereotypes that we intuitively attribute to a person or group. This then affects how we understand and engage with them.”
Unfortunately, when a prevailing group is responsible for continuing a company culture, talented individuals who do not fit the mould can fall through the cracks.
“There’s plenty of research showing that, because our brains are wired towards patterns and similarity, we use stereotypes all the time to recruit, promote and manage performance through our unconscious bias lens,” says Ms Cuic.
This partiality is something which often infiltrates companies’ recruitment processes.
“The results are a lack of opportunity with far-reaching consequences, not only from an internal workplace relations perspective, but across hiring, retention and promotion trends.”
Unconscious bias poses a huge detriment to the industry, as well as individuals, in terms of untapped talent and limited opportunity.
“Unless addressed, it is going to remain the proverbial thorn in the side that will continue to undermine diversity and inclusion efforts, and negatively impact the bottom line.”
Examples of unconscious bias are rife within the pipeline and gas industry.
“The naturally obvious example is low gender diversity, which has been driven by affinity or similarity bias, where the tendency is to connect with others who share similar interests, experiences and backgrounds,” says Ms Cuic.
“This can be seen when hiring for a particular ‘cultural fit’. This is reinforced by gender stereotypes ingrained in all of us.”
Ms Cuic says the idea of a ‘cultural fit’ is inherently problematic, with employers subconsciously leaning towards candidates that will perpetuate a legacy that hasn’t necessarily been driven by talent alone.
“This has created an easier environment for persistent lagging gender diversity in a sector faced with an ageing workforce and a low public profile in appeal to future generations,” she says.
But thanks to continued and open discussions, the situation is beginning to change for the better.
“As an agent at the frontline of a constantly changing employment landscape, we aim to create opportunity where it may be lacking. We’re in a unique position, being between the hiring manager and the job candidate, to bring awareness and work with the parties for better hiring outcomes.”
Ms Cuic says there are some practical measures companies can take to mitigate the role of unconscious bias.
“For us it begins at the job design and specification development stage and continues throughout the life cycle of a hiring process. We incorporate process and framing measures to ‘nudge’ inclusive behaviour.
“Employers can do the same by starting with the questions and conversations that lead to an increased awareness of where diversity is lacking. Initiatives can then be targeted according to the desired outcome – like increasing gender diversity at each stage of recruitment, retention, promotion and leadership,” she says.
During a recruitment process, consider what can be done to make it more conducive to female participation through simple redesign like anonymising and standardising applications. One of the major barriers for women applying is feeling under-qualified.
“By understanding how women interpret the job opportunity and application questions, it is possible to make adjustments to address reluctance that may be preventing them from taking up jobs.”
Ms Cuic says she has been impressed by initiatives like the APGA’s Women’s Leadership Development (WLDP) which encourage professional development, advocacy, training and networking among women in the industry. She is also an alumnus of the pilot program.
“I’m so pleased the APGA has ignited the flame on gender diversity through a program like the WLDP, as it has provided an industry-wide pathway and platform to encourage increased female participation and representation.”
Ms Cuic says the skills she learnt in the course are applicable to all in the workplace.
“While the initiative was established from the perspective of women’s leadership development, the principles in the program are universal and draw upon the strengths of our differences to shift how we understand and engage in leadership.”
Affirmative action, she says, is essential for the inclusion of marginal groups in industry.
“Initiatives like leadership training, employment surveys and diversity awards are great steps leading to the development of industry-standard best practice and industry-wide change.”
Ms Cuic encourages employers to move the conversation forward around unconscious bias and fair representation. She hopes we can make neutral the new normal and strive to change the workplace one, face at a time.