Sparks

Women Engineers

 By Nicholas Newman

In professional and managerial ranks, and especially as engineers, technicians, scientists and senior executives, women in the west are universally under-represented. For instance, in the UK, only 9 percent of engineers are women and in the US, the figure is just 14 percent, according to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee. Despite the high rewards, the energy sector has a long-standing recruitment and retention problem when it comes to female employees…

The chronic shortage of women in the industry has been attributed variously to either its macho image, western education or the rigor of the work environment

Hays Recruitment Agency found that women make up just 15 percent of the energy workers it surveyed. Individual energy firms show varying degrees of successful female recruitment. Women account for 17 percent of General Electric’s Oil and Gas Division, and 28 percent of ConocoPhillips, but rising to 32 percent in power utility E.on. The chronic shortage of women in the industry has been attributed variously to either its macho image, western education or the rigor of the work environment. However, perhaps fundamentally it comes down to a general lack of awareness and unfamiliarity with the industry. Few of the industry’s employees visit schools to meet, talk or capture their imagination with videos of oil rigs, seismic surveys or charts illustrating the uses of oil and gas. On top of this, there are very few media stories or profiles of women in electricity, oil or gas to act as role models. The figures are stark. Of 78 applicants for apprenticeships at Britain’s largest power plant, only two were female. Likewise, Carolyn Woolway, from Siemens’ new multi-million pound wind turbine factory in Hull told Viking FM Radio, “we have had 250 applications for apprenticeships and only 14 were from women but these opportunities are perfect for both genders, as long as you have got a keen interest in engineering and manufacturing.” Nevertheless, a conscious gender or cultural bias against engineering exists, as confirmed by a recent survey, which found that 65 percent of girls would not consider a career in engineering. Another survey, of teachers, found that more than half-regarded engineering as a boy’s career.

Education failures

First is western education’s failure to aggressively prepare pupils and students in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Nor is enough done to accommodate female’s different learning styles and needs, leading to a loss of confidence after the age of eleven, despite the survey evidence showing that girls are as good as boys in STEM subjects, the essential prerequisites for an engineering degree. The result, according to Edwina Dunn, Chair of the UK’s Your Life Education Initiatives is that, “students are coming out with good grades in subjects that industry needs less than the ones that they’re being put off.” This has a knock-on effect in higher education where few women choose engineering at university.

A Shortage of female role models

Within the industry women, professionals are spread too thinly to provide accessible and effective role models, and at board level, they are even rarer. There are a few exceptions, such as America’s Duke Energy with a female CEO and two female directors, Russia’s Gazprom where the chief accountant is female and Eskom Holdings with two female non-executives. There are even fewer women CEOs with an engineering background but three spring to mind—Isabelle Kocher of French Engie, Vicki Hollub of Houston-based Occidental’s global oil and gas business and Debra Reed of California-based Sempra Energy.

A recent survey confirm that 65 percent of girls would not consider a career in engineering

Why are women leaving engineering?

A US survey of 5,300 women who had earned engineering degrees within the past six decades, led by Nadya Fouad a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, revealed that 40 percent of women quit or never even took up the profession. The survey discovered that women were put off in college where they felt “relegated to doing routine menial, managerial and secretarial jobs when working on group projects.” For those who had gone on to employment, women felt that they were “excluded from the ‘real’ engineering work” by their male peers, writes an MIT professor involved in the survey, Susan Silbey, in the Harvard Business Review. Female respondents said they did not appreciate being talked down to by older male superiors and having colleagues commenting about their appearance. And yet, according to a 2014 NES Global Talent Survey, 75 percent of women working in the oil and gas industry felt welcome. Nevertheless, a significant 45 percent believed that they did not get the same recognition as their male colleagues.

Attracting more women

The energy industry is making great efforts to reach out to women by increasing the visibility of women currently employed and by early outreach to schools. For example, in the UK, the industry has created groups such as Powerful Women. In the US, there is an Association of Women in Energy, which is dedicated to promoting their careers. However, to really attract women it would seem that early intervention in schools would be a winning strategy. Individual energy companies like BP and German power utility E.on are starting to provide educational resources for schools and universities to foster awareness, familiarity and interest in the industry. Individual energy companies are offering scholarships to university and hosting special events for students as well as paid internships.

The energy industry is making great efforts to reach out to women by increasing the visibility of women currently employed and by early outreach to schools

To encourage female graduate recruitment and retention energy companies are adopting measures tried in other sectors, such as helping with childcare, job sharing and even working from home options. These efforts are geared especially to the recruitment and retention of female professionals and especially of engineers in order to ensure that the industry makes the most of the creative talent going to waste today. Measures such as these are certain to improve the outlook for women in the energy industry.

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about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide. https://nicholasnewman.contently.com/