Education

Making an unconventional choice

 By Rob Davies

The energy business has traditionally been dominated by men, but an impending recruitment crunch could signal big changes. A greater contribution from women would make for a stronger industry. “The gender imbalance? Nowadays is a fact. The only way to change these numbers is to feed our passion and promote our own talent. If we really want to do this job we can do it…”

From the storm-battered deck of an oil rig to the plushest boardroom, there is no denying that women are drastically underrepresented in the energy industry.

When Occidental Petroleum named 33-year company veteran Vicki Hollub as its new chief executive this May, she became the first woman to lead a major US oil company. That the high-level appointment of a woman should be hailed as a dramatic breakthrough showed just what a gender imbalance still remains.

While boardroom recruitment tends to generate headlines, the picture is no different further down the company hierarchy. A recent analysis of professional social networking website LinkedIn found thatwomen made up just 26.7 percent of profiles in oil and gas, less than in any other industry.

Some estimates suggest the figure could be even lower. A study by the American Petroleum Institute found that women made up only 19 percent of the industry’s headcount, compared to 47 percent of the American workforce.

The imbalance becomes more acute at the upstream end of the industry, on drilling rigs and other exploration and production facilities. Maria Giovanna Lai, 32, a completion specialist with Eni, has recently returned from an offshore rig in Angola.

“On that specific rig there are approximately 190 workers and the average is 188 men and two women…sometimes I was the only woman onboard!” Lai says.

She acknowledges that when she started out in the industry, it wasn’t always easy.

“Some people are reluctant at the beginning to accept that a woman can do this job and it takes a while before gaining their trust,” she recalls.

“People working in the oil and gas industry are not used to women in workplaces like the offshore. But the world is changing and I can certainly say that most of the time I feel treated fairly and I manage to build very good and strong relationships with my colleagues.”

Fellow Eni employee Lina Celentano, 36, spent two years working in Iraq before joining Eni East Africa in Mozambique as a project procurement manager. She says she has even been spurred on by the knowledge that she is one of relatively few women in a job like hers.

“It does not affect the way I work, indeed it stimulates me more; in fact I am the kind of person that is always looking for unconventional environments. When I was offered the chance to go to work in Iraq, I did not hesitate one minute before accepting and it was the best choice I could ever make,” she explains.

“I had to manage meetings where I was the only woman with colleagues of different cultures and religion and I realized I had succeeded when after more than one year I still received messages from my ex colleagues that remembered me for the job and the support I gave them. This is priceless.”

When you work in the oil and gas business to me it is of utmost importance to be 'in the field' and I suppose that not many women are ready to stay far from the family for a long period or have a family with the possibility to move

In many cases, professionals such as Lai and Celentano get used to being among the few women around, even before they enter the industry. Lai has been immersed in a disproportionately male environment since her time as a student at the Politecnico di Torino.

“We were four women out of a class of 35 students so it’s not something I notice every day now. It’s always been like this,” she says.

Her experience indicates that a big part of the problem for energy companies is that they are recruiting from an already male-heavy talent pool. This appears rooted in a lack of young women opting to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM subjects) at school and university level.

A study of the UK by Cambridge Occupational Analysts found that while the number of women choosing STEM subjects was growing, the number were still small. At degree level, for instance, women made up less than a quarter of students, with the proportion falling to 16 percent for engineering. An American survey turned up similar results, while the same appears to be true in several other countries.

Skeptics may question why the energy industry needs to address the deficit at all, after more than a century of male domination. One clue might be found in the financial industry.

Successful female professionals and academics have argued that the global financial crisis may have benefited from having more women in their decision-making chain. Banking may be a different beast, but the principles of risk and reward are similar. Indeed, the need for prudence is even more acute in the energy industry where a rash mistake can have immediate consequences for the safety of people and the health of the environment.

Talking about the gender imbalance

Lai is in no doubt that a greater contribution from women would make for a stronger industry.

“It would be beneficial to have different points of view in the key roles, not only in management but also in the technical departments. The way men and women think is different and discussing a topic with different points of view can be more productive and effective,” she notes.

Celentano agrees, saying it is “of the utmost importance to create the right mix of gender and especially to identify the strength of each and use them in the best way.”

But perhaps the most urgent reason to address energy’s gender divide is the impending recruitment crunch. As GE Oil & Gas chief executive Dan Heintzelman has noted, some five million people — a startling 50 percent of the industry’s workforce — is eligible to retire this year.

When energy companies address the need to renew and replenish aging workforces, they will want to hire from the broadest possible cross-section of talent. Both Lai and Celentano acknowledge that for some women, oil and gas is unlikely ever to be their chosen career.

“When you work in the oil and gas business to me it is of utmost importance to be ‘in the field’ and I suppose that not many women are ready to stay far from the family for a long period or have a family with the possibility to move,” says Celentano.

“It is also a cultural issue because it is still common that when a family is forced to make a choice, the woman is the one who gives up her career,” she continues.

But family concerns cannot be the only thing keeping women out of energy. Recruitment divisions will have to be inventive if they want to encourage applications from women who might otherwise give the industry a wide berth. One way of doing this is to take arms against any perception that the energy business is somehow unsuitable for women.

This lack of representation in the upper echelons of the industry makes it harder for aspiring female professionals to find role models and mentors who can help them carve out a successful career path

There is no doubt that the industry is already conscious of this reputation. US oil services giant Halliburton took a unique approach to changing perceptions, handing out gift packs containing branded lipstick and nail polish at a conference last year. While a bag full of make-up might have been a welcome freebie for some, it did little to dispel the notion that oil industry chiefs have a very traditional view of gender roles.

If anyone is to succeed at addressing aspiring women effectively, it ought to be those who have gone before them. But while the passion shown by professionals can help bring women into the industry at entry-level, it could take some time for the influx to percolate up to senior positions.

Take a look at the annual list of the Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Oil and Gas, compiled by the Oil and Gas Diversity Council. Only a handful of the top 10 work for companies that a layman would consider household names. Few people would argue that any of them would make the top 10 of a list that also included men.

This lack of representation in the upper echelons of the industry makes it harder for aspiring female professionals to find role models and mentors who can help them carve out a successful career path.

Several countries in Europe now use quotas to put a floor under the number of women in company boardrooms, with mixed results. Norway, which depends on a thriving oil industry for a great part of its wealth, has imposed a 40 percent quota. Germany set a less ambitious target of 30 percent earlier this year, joining a cluster of European countries to do the same.

But opinion is divided on the effectiveness of quotas for senior positions as a tool for improving women’s outcomes in the wider workplace. Not everyone thinks that the industry can solve one imbalance by creating another.

“Setting a minimum quota would mean to create a sort of privilege for women and this doesn’t sound right to me,” says Lai.

Perhaps the best way to entice women into the energy sector is for savvy companies to put role models such as Lai and Celentano at the heart of their recruitment strategy. Their words are the ones that will have the biggest impact among the talented girls and women of the world’s schools and universities.

“The gender imbalance nowadays is a fact,” Maria says. “But the only way to change these numbers is to feed our passion and promote our own talent. If we really want to do this job we can do it.”

about the author
Rob Davies
Business, travel and news for Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, City AM, Daily Telegraph, The Observer, Spears, Jewish Chronicle among others. https://robdavies.contently.com/