Career Development

Men’s Role in Leading Diversity and Inclusion Changes: An Interview With D&I Advocate Matthew Brierley

I realized how ignorant and oblivious I had been up until that point of the lived experiences of women and the many layers of challenges they face. … The first step to moving to a gender equal world is for people to become curious and to seek to understand the issues.

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The workplace is being redefined as we open our aperture and stop excluding 50% of the potential workforce. Men who are worried about what they might lose in this new world are less likely to help others and could become barriers. It’s important therefore to see the shifting situation as a new opportunity and a win for both females and males.

The following transcript records an interview with Matthew Brierley for the SPE BML Committee, during April–May 2021, on the topic of diversity and inclusion in the oil and gas sector. Brierley is an experienced engineer and senior manager within the industry, but also a researcher, author, and advocate for diversity and inclusion, and in particular men’s role within that.


Matthew Brierley is an experienced oil and gas professional. He has engineering, business, and arts degrees, and has had numerous management roles in engineering, operations, and maintenance while working in New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, and Scotland. He is a passionate advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). He was the first male co-chair of Woodside Energy’s gender equality employee network, a board member of the National Association of Women in Operations (NAWO), and is on the DEI committee for Women in Technology Western Australia (WiTWA). He won the inaugural WiTWA Outstanding Diversity Ally in 2020. Brierley is the author of Please Don’t Tell Me To Man Up.

The views expressed here are solely Brierley’s and do not represent those of his employer, SPE, or any other organization.

Thank you, Matthew, for agreeing to this interview, we really appreciate it. As an introduction, perhaps you could tell us a little about your career journey to date and what originally prompted your interest in diversity and inclusion, and gender equality? And what drives it now?

I am currently working on the digital transformation of asset management processes, drawing on an extensive career in the oil and gas industry where I have worked in various engineering, operations, and maintenance roles. I like to say that I am doing to operations what has happened to the music industry, taking them from vinyl to Spotify. For a good part of my career, I gave little thought to gender inequality and the challenges females were experiencing in the workplace and in society. Then a few years back a number of events coincided that started to give me some insight in to the significance and complexity of the problem of gender inequality. On reflection it really feels like the universe was calling out to me wake up and take notice. I attended a World Women Changers conference and was amazed and captivated by the stories and the issues that were shared. I realized how ignorant and oblivious I had been up until that point of the lived experiences of women and the many layers of challenges they face. I was also asked by my company’s gender equality employee network if I would lead the subcommittee tasked with increasing male participation in the gender equality movement.

I also had a number of experiences where I began to realize the many personal biases I had that were limiting my view of the world, combined with experiences that highlighted to me that if I wanted to see change happening in the world then that change needed to start with me. I had a realization that one of the fundamental problems is that everyone seems to think someone else will take care of the problem. I suddenly had clarity about the statement that “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” In the last couple of years, I had been the first male co-chair of my company’s gender employee network, joined the DEI committee for WiTWA, elected to the board of NAWO, published a book on gender equality, and also won the 2020 WiTWA Outstanding Diversity Ally award.

The results of a diversity and inclusion survey of a number of global SPE members during 2020 (SPE 202301 MS) indicated that about 50% of respondents saw tangible business value in the promotion of diversity and inclusion within their organizations.  Does this surprise you and what do you believe could be driving this belief?

There have been a large number of studies and articles that show there is a clear business case for having a diverse workforce. The Gender Equity Insights 2020 report shows that more women at the top proves better for business with profitability, performance, and productivity increasing under female leadership and female top-tier managers adding 6.6% to market value of Australian Securities Exchange companies. Similarly, The World Bank analyzed 141 countries and concluded the loss in human capital wealth due to gender inequality is estimated at $160.2 trillion if we simply assume that women would earn as much as men. This is about twice the value of GDP globally. Said differently, human capital wealth could increase by 21.7% globally, and total wealth by 14.0% with gender equality in earnings.

Therefore, the data is clear and easily available for anyone to obtain. That only 50% of people surveyed appreciate these facts points to ignorance and clear lack of understanding of the situation. The first step to moving to a gender equal world is for people to become curious and to seek to understand the issues. Once we understand the problems females face in the world then we will hopefully empathize and look at what we can do to change things for the better.

Some 11% of survey respondents to the survey also felt that corporate diversity and inclusion programs were superficial and potentially discriminatory in themselves, creating a disenfranchised minority, not necessarily dominated by men, who are clearly not “on board.” What do you make of this dynamic? Is this a barrier to progress?

This is a tough one and I certainly hear this. I am a white, straight, cis gender male and I have never experienced discrimination. I have lived a privileged life. That doesn’t mean I haven’t experienced challenges, but it does mean that there are hurdles and barriers that I haven’t had to negotiate or overcome. As we attempt a power rebalance between males and females it means that some people may feel a loss of privilege and interpret it as discrimination, when in fact it is actually a loss of entitlement.

Having said this, everyone wants to and deserves to feel valued and respected, otherwise they may become resistant to change and be a barrier to progress. I do think that as we nurture and steward talented females through our organization, which may be displacing individuals that have traditionally held these roles and positions, we need to ensure we maintain meaningful, respectful conversations with everyone in the organization and explain how we all continue to add value.

The workplace is being redefined as we open our aperture and stop excluding 50% of the potential workforce. Men who are worried about what they might lose in this new world are less likely to help others and could become barriers. It’s important therefore to see the shifting situation as a new opportunity and a win for both females and males. Men need to take on a growth mindset and see the increase in women moving into the workforce as an invitation for men to redefine their work experiences, such as with flexible working and as primary parental care givers.

What do you say to those people, those men, that feel there is no inequality?

If people don’t connect with the reality of inequality that many people, many women, experience then it makes it hard to have a conversation about the topic. It can be considered taboo to proclaim that women are already treated equal and so instead people chose not to discuss the topic. Instead, their thoughts and opinions stay underground and are never explored and challenged. And yet it is vitally important that we discuss and debate matters related to equality and inclusion so that we can work towards a world with an altered understanding with new information.

And it is understandable that men question the lived experience of inequality of women. It is very hard to connect to an experience you simply don’t have. I liken it to the analogy of the tall shopper and the short shopper, both of whom are standing at the front of a grocery store. The tall shopper walks the aisles and can chose any product from any shelf and when they get to the check-out, they have a trolley full of all the goods they wanted to buy. The short shopper on the other hand can’t reach the top shelves and so instead has to start making some decisions. Do they buy an inferior product, or a more expensive product, do they go without certain things, do they wait for a tall shopper to walk past and assist them? All of these obstacles create an alternative shopping experience that looks equal on the surface. The tall shopper thinks to themselves “we both had the same amount of money” or “we both walked the same aisles.” It’s not that the tall shopper is a bad person or that they hate short shoppers, it’s just that they had a different shopping experience to the short shopper. The tall shopper is totally unaware of the many hidden obstacles that create a different shopping experience for the short shopper. In the same way, men are not bad, they are just blinkered to the experiences of being a minority in a workforce and blind to the hidden obstacles some women face in the workplace, not because they don’t want to see them but because they just don’t look for them.

Using this analogy is also important when considering the role of senior males mentoring young females. Mentoring is important but it is usually based on the younger person listening to the senior person explain their career path and how they overcame challenges in their career. But if we apply the tall shopper, short shopper analogy it will be of limited or no benefit for a short shopper to listen to the experiences of the tall shopper in the grocery store. Instead, senior males in an organization should act as sponsors for their young female colleagues. In the same way a tall shopper should listen to the challenges and obstacles a short shopper has in the grocery store and with that information break down the shelves that are too high and totally redesign the grocery store, senior males should listen to the challenges young females are experiencing and with that information fix the workplace, so it is equitable for all.

What do you believe supervisors, team leaders, and frontline managers need to do more of, in order to enable a better diversity and inclusion culture at work? What do you believe are the most useful things we, as individuals, can do to progress diversity and inclusion?

Managers and leaders need to recognize that diversity is the workforce, inclusion is the workplace. Diversity is about the numbers, but inclusion is focused on the culture, and this is set in very large part by the managers and leaders in an organization. I think leaders need to be curious and seek to understand the issues. They need to be open to listening to the concerns of the groups that experience discrimination and be humble enough to step forward, acknowledge that change is needed and then lead that change. Good leaders seek to understand how people feel and then confront stereotypes and biases head on and visibly. They show vulnerability through sharing their own personal stories about their awareness of their biases and explaining how they are prepared to change in order to make the world more equal and inclusive.

As individuals we should always seek to understand other people’s points of view and their challenges and have true empathy for their unique issues. We should look at ourselves and honestly confront our biases. We should show visible commitment and allyship through showing humility and solidarity and a willingness to change. Importantly, we need to start and start now. What we do will never be perfect, but you need to start somewhere. Trust that whatever you will improve, and any support and involvement is better than nothing. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “If we are neutral in situations of injustice, we take the side of the oppressor.” Gender inequality is an injustice and we cannot remain neutral.

To conclude, I often reflect on the words someone said to me, whom I respect a lot: “If not me then who, if not now then when?” The time for change is now, and change will only happen if we step up.

[The article was sourced from the SPE BML Committee by TWA editor Abhijeet Anand.]