Women in the Oil and Gas Industry

There’s an article over in Upstream Online which I feel misses the point, that point being the one which Tim Worstall bangs on about with regularity: gender inequality in the workplace is actually a motherhood issue.

A new survey claims the majority of women feel welcome in the oil and gas industry but nearly half believe the do not get the same recognition as their male counterparts.

The survey by NES Global Talent examined the gender talent gap in the oil and gas industry and ways of attracting and retaining women in the industry.

The survey claimed that 75% of women who participated felt welcome in the industry and 89% would encourage other females to join, however 45% said they believed men get more recognition in the industry.

While the survey found that some respondents found oil and gas a welcoming industry with equal opportunity policies in place, others said women were restricted to supporting roles and did not enjoy the same salaries and career opportunities as men.

From what I’ve seen, there are several women with high-flying careers who occupy senior and (presumably) well-paid roles in the oil business.  But in most cases they are childless, and often unmarried.  The problem is that to grow in the international oil business you have to have expatriate experience, and for a fast-tracked career you need to have done your expatriations in a hardship location.  For single women this isn’t much of a problem, but for those with young children it is extremely difficult to dovetail the requirement to live in a hardship location with the responsibilities a woman has towards her family.  This is pretty much admitted:

The percentage of women in the market has increased. Unfortunately, the number of women in technical roles and field positions are still scarce. The general mentality that this is not a female oriented environment still exists.

And the answer is right there: the reason there are few women in field positions is because field positions are the absolute worst positions for anyone to also manage a family life.  Unless a woman is childless or has a stay-at-home husband, it is going to be exceptionally difficult to hold down a field position, especially as more and more facilities are to be found in hardship locations or the deep offshore.

When asked how their company could be more welcoming and encouraging to female employees, respondents gave a variety of answers including  providing equal opportunities, female role models, flexible working hours and more support to women with children.

Which is great, but how can somebody in a field position be offered flexible working hours?  Most people are offshore on a 28/28 rotation or in the middle of nowhere on an 8/2 or 6/3.

A majority of respondents said they planned to remain in the industry for the next two-to-five years, but 18% said they intended to leave the industry.

When questioned for the reasoning behind their decision a range of answers were given, with family commitments, a better work / life balance and a lack of equality being among the main reasons.

Well, yes.  My advice to anyone who wants to put family before work and have a good work/life balance is to give the oil industry a wide berth.  I’ve quite deliberately remained childless partly for this reason, and I’ve not seen my wife since 2nd December and not lived with her since August 2009.  Such is the price you pay when you want to command a decent salary in an industry which unfortunately has most of its opportunities in places nobody wants to live.

What women are up against is people like me, who have forgone the family life in order to get the better positions.  The industry is full of men like me, and full of others who do the same but fail to keep the marriage or family together.  If women want to compete with this, they need to make much the same sacrifices, and the successful women you see in the industry have done this, at least for a period.

It is my firm belief that women are offered exactly the same opportunities as the men, but are also expected to make the same sacrifices with regards their family and personal life.  Unfortunately, in general, this hits women much harder than it does men.  I think oil companies have done a great deal to make it easier for women to occupy senior positions whilst minimizing the impact on their family life, but it’s hard to see what else they can do.

One thing I’ve noticed is that there is no shortage of female engineers in the oil industry, but they do tend to cluster around certain disciplines.  Far more women do chemical engineering at university than the other disciplines, which means that a lot of process engineers in the oil industry are female (and damned good, most of them).  The trouble is the natural career path for a process engineer is into operations, which means at some point you need to spend time on site.  To reach the upper echelons of management you will have to become an Offshore Installation Manager (OIM), which will be offered to you when you have about 15-20 years of experience (i.e. aged between 35 and 40).  Most women of this age will have kids and a husband who cannot manage if the mother just disappears for 28 days at a time, which is what an OIM’s job entails.  I have seen women offered this role but have turned it down for precisely these reasons.  The women who take these roles generally don’t have kids.  It’s really hard to know what to do about this.

One thing I am glad about was that the survey said most women felt welcome in the oil industry.  I have felt, in the oil companies at least, that woman enjoy far more equality and acceptance than they would perhaps find in other industries (law, for example).  I have yet to think of a time when my thoughts or attitude have changed in the slightest on discovering a particular engineer is a woman, and nor have I heard even the slightest suggestion from anyone – in over 12 years – that a woman doing a certain job is for whatever reason a bad thing.  The current head of my department is a woman, and I discovered this when I interviewed for the position: it didn’t make a blind bit of difference to me, never even occurred to me that it should.  The department itself is full of female engineers, most of them married with kids, and I probably interface more with women than men: again, it makes no difference to me.  At the risk of making a crude stereotype, I actually find female engineers to be pretty good as they pay considerable attention to detail.  And one of the most impressive engineers I have encountered in the industry, and by far and away the best risk and safety engineer I ever met, was an Australian girl.

I have seen the huge efforts oil companies have gone to in trying to accommodate more women in their career programmes, and the complete ease with which female engineers are accepted into what was once a male-dominated environment.  But for the reasons I have outlined I don’t think things are going to improve much from here, at least for those women who want a family life and a career in the oil industry.


12 thoughts on “Women in the Oil and Gas Industry

  1. Yes no doubt about it, the best thing that an infant can receive is its mother’s love. There is also nothing wrong with the mother being “the homemaker” and playing the absolutely critical and enabling role in a male’s oil and gas career either. Those that belittle the role of a homemaker are morons.

    There is no discrimination, most females don’t apply for the roles in the first place, hence the lower appointment rates. The worst thing you can get is the notion that you must have a ratio of x% females in any management strata, it has to be on merit and not on sex. We have the absolutely ludicrous political correctness down under situation at the moment with the ASX corporate governance guidelines for the number of females that should be on a board. If you don’t have that ratio you need to publish the reason why not in you annual report and what strategies you have in place in this regard.

    We have a female in a senior role in the oil and gas industry in Australia, her name is Catherine Tanna, actual performance aside, well done Catherine, but personally speaking this to me is a classic case of jobs for the Sheila’s.

  2. ” It’s really hard to know what to do about this.” Easy: start fracking so that there are lots of onshore jobs in convenient locations.


  3. Fracking is a Feminist issue!

    We want fracking and we want it now!

    Saudi, Saudi, Saudi; out, out , out!

  4. Easy: start fracking so that there are lots of onshore jobs in convenient locations.

    Good point!!

  5. I think you are on the mark with this . It’s the unfortunate truth of the Oil and Gas Industry. Now that I’ve navigated it so far I can look back and see how it could be done better if you are a woman starting out. For example, graduate with your glowing Chem Eng degree, spend the first 10 years of your career getting as much site experience as possible, enter your thirties in a central office position in Process Engineering, or transfer into a support department such as HSE, Reliablility or related directorate such as Commercial or Finance etc. Of course, any Oil and Gas central office job will normally give you a job in a suitable location for family life, and this works well if you choose to follow the economics, commercial or central HSE route. Of course HR gives you central location normally in a nice city, but you have to live with the fact that you are in HR..

    Regarding the competition with single men and men who have left their families behind. There are driven people of all genders and family situations in every organization. I have met women in this industry where their husband is the stay at home partner and the mother works all the hours as she torpedoes up the ladder. If a woman chooses family life and wants to stay in the industry she needs to consider what this dramatic change will do for her career. For most women this has meant a pause in their progression, or a derailment of their career. Everything in life has trade offs, you need to choose what is most important to you.

    In my opinion, for most women the transformation into being a mother crystallizes what is important in life, and usually staying late at the office doesn’t feature high on the list. In fact, this same experience is true for many people reaching a certain age and thinking ‘whats it all about’, or people who have survived a serious illness and they speak of the scales falling from their eyes. If anything, I think once you have a family you are driving efficiency in your work to a higher degree than ever. I can see for myself I cut out a lot of the water cooler gossip during the day preferring to incorporate this part of work cohesion into actual work activities (gossip while going on a site walk, while waiting for a meeting to start), cut out the slack in meetings and processes I am involved in so that I can make an earlier bus home, acutely aware that I cant stay an extra hour to make it up like I used to before. However, like most parents who work in my office, I do the late shift and pull a few extra hours once the kids are in bed, be that to study or finishing off urgent work. This is not unique to O&G, my friends in Medicine, Law, IT and Journalism do the same, juggling around drop offs, pick ups and sleep times.

    Family life and site work is the hard part. I’d never choose to do a rotation now. There will be some hard choices coming up for me in the future when we need to move from our current choice location where work, family and school are all easily available. One of these choices may well be moving out of O&G altogether if it means preserving family life.

  6. tip for Women’s in O&G: Just find an Eelco -;) doing just fine with 3 kids 4 and under in our current hardship location…..yes he still talks Mettalurgy full time too at a decent level. Doing pretty fabulous……. apart from that smelly Salmon maybe -;)

  7. “you have to live with the fact that you are in HR”: better than cleaning lavatories for a living, I suppose, to take a similarly shite-oriented activity.

  8. At least lavatory cleaners take pride in their work, achieve something and also clean up shit. Whereas HR don’t care, and don’t achieve anything except creating shit.

  9. I’m glad we all agree that HR are an utter waste of space. There are some universal constants, this is one of them.

  10. Yes Tim, I think there is some support for your view on your notion of the real and fictitious sexuality hurdles of the oil and gas industry, especially given the views of Dear Bait, not that us males are biased!

    As a traditionalist I was very surprised at our dear colleague dearieme arbitrarily comparing a focused and dedicated worker against some corporate dead wood, as this is not like him and very unbecoming of the female supporting role of the Scots.

  11. Good post and interesting to see what it’s like in O&G versus IT. I think it’s like any job, if you aren’t prepared to work within what the job demands then regardless of your reason that it doesn’t fit (e.g. having a family) then it’s not for you. Don’t want to wear a uniform, don’t join the force. Don’t want to work crazy hours, don’t get a job that works crazy hours. Career advice there.
    Sure, everyone has the right to have a family, but it’s a personal choice how you make that work. If a woman is hell bent on pursuing a career in an industry that demands long work hours, hand the diaper to the husband. Guys make excellent homemakers too.

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