BY CHARLOTTE HERROLD
In the 1980s, early in her career, Brenda Kenny worked as a regulator with Canada’s National Energy Board and she was one of only a few women in the oil-and-gas sector. “But I never felt like I faced barriers to advancement,” she says. That’s not an opinion, it’s a fact: Kenny was promoted numerous times over 30 years and today is the CEO of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association. Still, being able to advance doesn’t mean there wasn’t discrimination.
During Kenny’s first lunch at the Calgary Petroleum Club, a membersonly establishment that was closed to women until 1989, her entire party was forced to sit behind a curtain so that the one woman in their group of 20 — Kenny — wouldn’t be seen by other members.
On more than one occasion, Kenny was also the target of lewd cat-calls on job sites where she inspected large pipelines. “It was certainly unacceptable, but my attitude was that they [the men whistling] were only embarrassing themselves,” she says. Despite the less-than-welcoming environment, Kenny worked diligently and climbed the ranks in her career.
A mother of three, she also made the choice in the mid-1980s to take a leave from her job and focus on raising her sons. She even managed to carve out time to advance her education, taking a sabbatical in the early 2000s to earn her doctorate in sustainable development strategy. And when it comes to breaking into a male-dominated arena, Kenny was an early trailblazer.
She launched her career at the Welding Institute of Canada in Oakville, Ont., (after graduating from Queen’s University in 1979) eventually earning a master’s degree in welding from the University of Waterloo. Two years later, she accepted a job at the National Energy Board in Ottawa as a regulator, a decision that eventually led her to Calgary and propelled her into the oil-and-gas industry.
Attitudes have certainly come a long way since Kenny had to hide behind that curtain. She now sits at the helm of Canada’s pipeline industry and while she says there are still relatively few women in the executive ranks, she has noticed that men in senior roles now welcome diversity of thinking styles to help with the problem-solving that the energy sector requires today.
“Ten years ago, if I tried to express something that sounded emotional, it might not have been respected, it might have been viewed as outside of the problem-solving set,” she explains. “Now, if I’m trying to translate something that’s emotional into strategy, it’s embraced. I don’t like to generalize, but women are often quite comfortable navigating between something emotional and something tactical, and that’s recognized as a perspective that absolutely has to be included when problem-solving for energy and the environment.”
The challenge now, she says, is for other women to recognize the opportunities available to them in this sector. “I still come across young women who think that the industry doesn’t welcome diversity,” she says before introducing a colourful metaphor for her business and the women coming into it.
There might have been a time when you had to ‘man up’ and wear a suit that looked like the guy next to you,” she says, “but those days are gone. I’m wearing funky, blue-suede stilettos today — why should I dress like a man?