BUSINESSiQ Editor Mike Hughes talks to Kate Matthews, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Manager for bp in Europe, about education and the future of the region, and her own route to one of the most influential roles in the sector.


Teesside is all about opportunity.

When young people were growing up here only a few years ago, the future was steel. Parents and grandparents had worked in the industry and the job opportunities on such a vast site seemed to be almost limitless.

As a steel powerhouse the region could stand toe to toe with anyone in the world. Now the fulcrum has changed, but the confidence is back and that feeling that we can take on anyone, anywhere, is resurgent through the region.

The Teesworks magnet is drawing in businesses from many sectors, so the choice is more varied and the opportunities greater than ever. But with that opportunity comes responsibility to make sure this unrivalled foundation becomes a sustainable future for everyone, regardless of their background.

Read more: Echo's Level Up campaign puts diversity at top of the agenda

Kate Matthews is on the front line of this mission, with enough firepower to help set lasting standards and make a difference to tens of thousands of young people.

As Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Manager for bp across Europe, the Middle East and Africa she is passionate about sharing the opportunities the region is presenting. As bp is a partner in our Level Up campaign, we met at one of the live debate events where she set out her own route to a position of considerable influence in our region.

“I spent my whole career in HR and did everything throughout the employee lifecycle for many years hiring, development, and lots of redundancies,” she told me.

“Then about eight years ago, I moved into learning and development as a specialism and was responsible for the diversity and inclusion agenda at the company.

“When I was considering my move to bp, what was a real surprise was that my teenagers asked ‘Why would you do that?’ That’s a generational thing, but I was looking to move to a different sort of industry and was looking at energy and tech, for the growth opportunity and the chance to change those views of the sector.

The Northern Echo: Kate Matthews at the Level Up partners wallKate Matthews at the Level Up partners wall

“Both offer lots of different sort of challenge in terms of where you find the skills, how you keep people and engage the workforce, the connection to the environment, and the challenge that the world has to find sustainable energy sources.”

Seeking out that inspiring challenge when you have the world to choose from was quite a journey for Kate – but, spurred on by her children’s insight, she wanted to find more than a brand. She wanted people she could work with and who shared her determination to make a difference and not just take the money each month.

“There was certainly a huge personal aspect to all this,” she says.

“I knew people who worked at bp  and so I had a sense of the culture because they told me the people were nice, and even though it feels like a simple thing to say, it's true.

“It's a really friendly company, people really care. And one thing has really struck me as we've been developing our strategy around Net Zero is how passionate people at every level in the organisation are about supporting that strategy - they really care about the environment and the world they are living in and how that will pass on to the next generation.

“It does remind me of when I was in banking, that there was this perception outside the sector that all bankers were awful human beings -  and some of them were. But most of them were actually very nice people doing a job. And, you know, mistakes were made.

“That's the important thing, I think, in any environment - if you make a mistake, you own it and you look at ways to remedy it or take a different approach going forward. In the energy sector, it's not an option to just turn off hydrocarbon energy, so we need to keep moving.”

Having found the role she had always wanted, and matched that with the sort of people she wanted to work with, the scale of the task started to take shape for Kate. The structure and company ethos was sound – this was a business that already knew the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion and the ‘tone from the top’ was powerful.

The Northern Echo: Kate MatthewsKate Matthews

But her new employer was one of the most influential companies on the planet, with more than 15,000 colleagues in the UK alone, so getting that tone to go through every layer in every location was certainly the challenge she had been looking for.

“I think the net zero agenda is really useful one from a D&I perspective. In terms of our commitment and how we've got there as an organisation it's quite a journey when you think about where we were ten years ago” she said.

“Net Zero has required people to lean into a lot of discomfort to recognise where there may be bias around what is green, and why would we go there? What are the business opportunities it offers? The same thing applies to D&I.

“The minute you start to open yourself to a curious mindset to learn more about it, and not hold those biases in the way of that exploration, then you're already making progress. And somewhere there is this tipping point where it becomes obvious that it's not a choice. It's something we have to do.

“I'm encouraging my colleagues to look at diversity and inclusion not only from a workforce point of view, but through every business decision they make. So whatever you're doing, if you're planning a project, if you're thinking about an event, if you're going out to market for a service or a product, think about where D&I might show up, because it opens opportunities.

“For me, it's a form of risk management. What might you be missing in terms of what your stakeholders are looking for and what your outcomes might be? If you put a D&I lens on it, it changes things.”

Just as Kate was looking for bp, maybe bp was looking for Kate as well. The support for her work has been impressive, to say the least, with its first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion report published in June last year and CEO Bernard Looney making sure there is no room for error: “For me, it's very, very simple,” he says.

“People are treated with respect, people should absolutely feel safe – we shouldn't even have to question that. And, if ever we find people who are not supportive or aligned with that agenda, then they don't belong in our company.”

The report was equally clear that bp was radically changing as a company and that diversity was as much a part of that as hydrogen and carbon capture. It said: “Our diversity, equity and inclusion ambition is for bp to reflect the world around us. We want to be the go-to Integrated Energy Company for the best and brightest talent the world has to offer.

The Northern Echo: Kate MatthewsKate Matthews

“We aim to be a company that creates an environment where everyone can bring their best and true selves and reach their potential. Which values difference, hears all voices, nurtures all talent and does not tolerate prejudice. Ever.”

That statement is out there now in big bold letters and bp is ready to be challenged by it, which shows the confidence it has that this is a turning  point, and that people like Kate play a vital role in turning such words into long-lasting actions.

She tells me: “Lots of research shows that diverse and well-managed teams will outperform homogenous teams. Teams that are balanced can be more productive, more profitable because of the way the interaction works - it means that you suddenly are looking at the problem from a different angle.

“If you've got a diverse group of people solving a problem, you're going to get them coming to that problem with a different set of pre-established beliefs and approaches to solving it.

“It's not that men and women, for example, are exclusively different. Lots of men have typically female characteristics and lots of women have typically male characteristics. But women bring a different way of problem solving, of innovation and exploration.

“So diverse teams are more innovative and more creative, but I will always insert the ‘well managed’ bit in that equation because you can't just pull a bunch of people together and expect them to get on with it.

“The other point is the world demographic is changing and there is more diversity from an ethnicity and race perspective. So if an organisation chooses not to include that enormous sector of the future working population, then that just makes no business sense and no common sense. Why would you not have skilled and talented people in your workforce?”

As a mum, she is very aware that ‘tone from the top’ starts in homes and schools. If the next generation are to have what it takes then D&I needs to be in their DNA, as natural as an accent whatever their background.

Once that is in place, reinforcing it becomes less and less necessary and then we start heading towards true equality where the challenge isn’t there anymore because we have overcome it.

Kate’s personal insight is as honest and frank as you would expect: “We have some good conversations at home, not so much about work, but more about social roles, because the roles in the home are really important from a gender point of view.

“Maybe we haven't role modelled that brilliantly in our household around who does what… which is why it's great when I go away travelling because that can be a bit of a crisis.

“But crucially, we make the opportunity to have that conversation and we explore it. For my boys a lot of their friends’ mums don't work, so we have had a lot of conversations about ‘why do you work?’.

Read more: bp plans Teesside jobs boost at powerplant and hydrogen projects

“It's never been that they mind that I work, I think they see that it makes me happy and fulfils me, and obviously brings income into the household that means we can do things together and have a lifestyle that allows that.

“I think they feel that the fact that I work has given them more freedom actually, because they have to be more independent when I'm not there, so from a family dynamics viewpoint, it's really interesting.

“I hope that those discussions resonate because getting women in the workplace from a wellbeing point of view, from a household income point of view and actually for generating wealth for the local community is huge because women when they're working spend more money which generates more economic prosperity for the local community.

“When I talk to my children about career choices my youngest, who is 15, is really clear about what he doesn’t want to do already, and probably was in that position by the time he was 13, or 14.

“So that's why we need to get some of these thoughts being discussed at primary school and talk to families and parents about the opportunity that is on the table.

“We also provide education resources to teachers, we work with the Science Museum to fund an academy for teachers to help them learn how to teach STEM in an engaging way. Also, all our employees have access to teaching resources that they can share and that   are also available to teachers.

“That’s all around creating the resources and then creating an engagement with those resources.”

Just a few weeks ago, bp, a partner in the Northern Echo’s Level Up campaign to attract and support investment and jobs for the area, agreed a partnership with Redcar & Cleveland College to develop a range of programmes to equip those young people across Teesside with vital new career skills, and to help grow the sense of inclusion that has been the backbone of our growth for many years.

As part of the arrangement, bp will provide £50,000 in funding for the development of the new Clean Energy Education Hub at the College and help develop a careers pathway plan based on skills demand for the proposed projects in the region.

Kate says: “Our goal or ambition for D&I is to reflect the community in which we operate so we very much want to have the majority of our employees from the local area. While we recognise those skills might not be here today, if we invest correctly in education then in ten years they will be.

You can’t take your eyes off this region for a moment - and the combination of bp’s vast influence and considerable resources and the ethics and ethos that Kate Matthews and her team are so invested in is a pivotal part of its future.


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