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Towards Gender Balance in Hydrocarbon Fields

Sunday, 18th December 2016

By Sarah Samir

Oil and gas has always been a male dominated industry. Yet, although working conditions in the oil and gas sector are harsh, women are becoming more present in the field. As they accepted the challenge and started playing an active role in such a promising area, women can be more often seen as role models in the industry.

Still, however, the percentage of women in oil and gas remains low, globally. The overall number of females working in the industry is still less than 25% of the total workforce.

A Gulf Intelligence Special Report 2015 – ‘New Policies Needed to Accelerate Gender Balance in Oil & Gas Industry’ mentioned that women occupy only 11% of seats on the boards of directors of the world’s 100 largest oil and gas companies. In the US, women in CEO positions in energy firms are represented by merely 6%, according to Korn Ferry, a global advisory firm.

In Egypt, the numbers are somewhat higher. The country’s Ministry of Petroleum records 18% of female employees, while the percentage of women at the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation and other Holding Companies is estimated at around 22%, according to the ministry’s website.

The statistics, nonetheless, raise a question whether the industry is only tough for women’s physique or whether the social barriers of the collective consciousness are affecting the workforce on a greater scale.

A Variety of Challenges

It is no secret that women encounter a larger number of challenges in the industry than men. These are related not only to the harsh nature of hydrocarbon areas and production processes, but also to societal barriers and psycho-social factors that surround women on daily basis.

Geological nature of upstream fields, often located in remote areas, is ruthless in itself, and weather can make working conditions even harder. But this is not the only obstacle. While working in an upstream field, employees face countless dangerous situations, as Rebecca Ponton elaborated in her article ‘Breaking the Gas Ceiling: Women in the Offshore Oil & Gas Industry.’ Workers need to be wearing “gas masks to prevent their exposure to deadly hydrogen sulfide gas.” In cases of accidents, they face danger in the form of explosions and burning rigs. In offshore fields, they have to wait for emergency helicopter to evacuate them, which further increases the risk that they may be harmed, injured, or even killed.

The oil and gas industry is thus considered dangerous to bodily health of women. “There are a lot of dangerous products, dangerous emissions, and dangerous gases, which affect women’s bodies and health, especially if they are pregnant or in their period,” said Assistant Under Secretary for Economic Affairs at the Kuwaiti Oil Ministry, Nawal Al­Fuzai.

This is an indisputable fact. Immediate danger for personnel is undoubtedly a decisive factor for both men and women to decide to join the industry. But the reasoning related to women’s biological nature can build up assumptions and prejudices and in effect result in a scenario when the argument, that women are in fact capable of working in the oil and gas industry, is simplistically rejected.

What is more, women face a series of other challenges when they want to become petroleum engineers that stem from society’s perceptions, as Eng. Amal Mansour, General Manager of Operations and Communications Systems at the Petroleum Pipelines Company (PPC) affirmed.

Social limitations are an important factor in women’s decision to opt for such a career and the beginnings may be further discouraging. Eng. Mansour remembered her early work days in an interview with Egypt Oil&Gas: “When I was assigned to prepare operations applications work, the assigned team had to take an operations training in Suez for a week, and the company provided residential units for the employees. However, as the only woman, I faced social barriers related to the concept of woman’s reputation. Yet, I accepted the challenge and kept moving on a daily basis back and forth between Cairo and Suez.”

Similarly, Gabriela Arias, Business Development Manager at Halliburton, did not shy away from the opportunity and entered the industry. She recalled speaking at the 2015 Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) that “one of my challenges was when I first entered the industry. I was the only girl working in the field.”

These women did not allow society affect their professional life and future. But this is not the case across the entire industry. In some countries more than in others, women have traditionally been underrepresented in hydrocarbon business due to a collective perception that they should focus on bringing up future generation and establish families, as Kelly Services Company’s article – ‘Attracting More Women to the Oil and Natural Gas Industry’ read. Hence, some women felt insecure because of the common beliefs that oil and gas is rather a place for men.

A survey conducted by NES Global Talent in 2014 asking about women’s position in the oil and gas showed that 45% of females in the industry did not get the same recognition as men. Neil Tregarthen, CEO at NES commented on the survey’s outcome stating that women further stated that “they are paid less and have fewer opportunities than their male counterparts, and have to work harder than men to prove themselves.”

An alerting factor is that the discrepancy between men and women in the industry begins already in first stages of their career paths. Students in Ghana shared these stories. In the government’s sponsorship program aimed at students who wanted to join various oil- and gas-oriented courses, “fewer females were sponsored compared to males” in the studentship rounds between 2010 and 2015. According to the African Centre for Energy Policy, as many as 221 boys were assisted in contrast to 49 girls who were given a similar chance.

Based on that, one would find it less surprising that the oil and gas industry has the lowest representation of female employees in comparison to other professions or sectors worldwide, as latest reports by Reuters have revealed.

On top of physical, bodily, and societal issues, the hardships that women face in the oil and gas industry is also linked to so called “socio-psychological challenges,” according to Gas Strategy and Master Planning Unit Manager at the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), Fatema Al Neaimi, who most recently spoke at the 2016 ADIPEC conference on the Women in Energy panel.

Most people “associate engineering fields with male, while they associate humanities and arts fields with female,” she said. This collective consciousness psychologically affects life choices of many women. According to the book ‘Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics’ by Catherine Hill, Christianne Corbett, and Andresse St. Rose, “implicit bias is common, even among individuals who actively reject these stereotypes. This bias does not only affect individuals’ attitudes toward others, but also influences women’s likelihood of cultivating their own interest in math and science.” Thus, the common beliefs evidently have the power to discourage women from pursuing their dreams to work with hydrocarbons.

In the case of the Egyptian industry, “the general mentality in dealing with women is not equal to that of dealing with men at work,” May Shoukry, IT Specialist at PPC told Egypt Oi&Gas. “For example women are not allowed to work overtime hours. Thus, when there is a training that will affect a woman’s career path, it is instead granted to men. This is not because men can do better in their roles, but because they will work extra hours.”

Similarly, May Shoukry explained, “the Egyptian law grants women vacations like a maternity leave. However, according to the oil and gas labor law, an employee should work for consecutive two years in order to be promoted. Thus, a woman who is working for more than ten years could be deprived of promotion just because she had to go on a maternity leave.”

In this way, women are forcibly put in front of an option to choose between their career paths and their families, which, in and of itself, is not necessarily prosperous for the industry. But despite lack of encouragement, there has been a recent trend when women started confronting these social paradigms. By doing so, they effectively pointed to the need of fresh workforce in the industry, which can be achieved by introducing new inclusive policies. If successful, this may generate larger benefits for all those who are involved in the hydrocarbon business from the public and private sectors alike.

Inclusion & Diversity

Undoubtedly, the global oil and gas industry is currently in need of an increased number of female employees. “Diversity [of workforce] is becoming more important as the energy sector is going through fast transformation and as gender balance is becoming a factor in organizational success,” according to female leaders speaking at ADIPEC 2016 conference.

Gender diversity in workforce is crucial because the industry does not “just need all types of energy, [but it] needs diversity of thought” in order to be able to meet the demands of the shared energy future, eloquently stated Shell’s Vice-President for Exploration in MENA, Eileen Wilkinson at ADIPEC.

Calls for workforce gender balance in the industry become more urgent “with demand for engineering expertise far outstripping supply and half the experienced engineering workforce set to retire in the next decade,” as Neil Tregarthen explained. In his view, “the sector is facing a crippling skills shortage,” which needs to be addressed.

Adopting policies that would create a more inclusive work environment for both male and female employees in the industry provides a straightforward solution. Hence, rejecting the fact that the percentage of women in the industry simply need to increase makes little sense nowadays.

Women as Role Models

The petroleum industry is, nonetheless, familiar with female leading figures already, who are able to overcome the hardships in the industry as much as men and succeed. ‘The Black Island’ documentary by a Dutch filmmaker, Rob Rombout, talks about women who became successful in the field. The movie opens with a quote stating that “eighty men and one woman work around the clock in search of Black Gold.”

This one woman was Pat Thomson. She worked as a Materials and Logistics Supervisor. While she was being employed until she was 72 years old, Pat Thomson had responsibilities as a mother of three, a grandmother of nine, and a great-grandmother of two. She retired first in 2013. Today, Thomson eloquently describes her experience from the fields in a book ‘Breaking the Gas Ceiling: Women in the Offshore Oil and Gas Industry.’ “There are things you do not learn from a textbook. The men were too busy with their own jobs. I had to teach myself and I learned by trial and error. I was terrified; one mistake and I could have shut down a rig.” Yet, she did learn, and not only that, she succeeded in her career.

Pat Thomson was, however, not the only woman, who against all odds, became a respected employee. Many other women tell their success stories; some of them in the upstream sector working in offshore fields. In Australia, Yassmin Abdl-Magied, who works as a well-site drilling engineer, was named Queensland Young Australian of the Year in 2015. In an article about her career ‘Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Formula One Expert, Oil Rig Engineer, Change Charger’ she commented on her job saying: “Not only do I find it fun working on the rig, meeting different people, travelling constantly, but it also fits my intentions.”

These inspiring role models from among successful women in the petroleum industry are to be found not only in the US or Australia, but also in the third world developing countries.

In 2016, President of Mozambique, Filipe Nyusi, appointed Leticia Klemens as Energy Minister. Previously, she was a Chairwoman of Mozambique’s largest commercial bank, the International Bank of Mozambique, headed the Association of Mozambican Businesswomen, founded and led the Association of Mozambican Women Entrepreneurs.

In Egypt, some women also became leading representatives in the oil and gas industry. For example, Eng. Amira El Mazni, who joined the Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS) in 2005 and worked in the Planning & Projects Division, succeeded in her career and was later promoted as Vice Chairman of Gas Regulatory Affairs at EGAS. Her responsibilities include planning and designing the legal framework of the country’s entire gas sector. Eng. El Mazni’s role is also to document the developments in order to establish Egypt’s new Gas Regulatory Authority in line with the government’s overhaul in the hydrocarbon sectors.

Similarly, Eng. Amal Mansour was the first female IT Engineer to join PPC and to be assigned to prepare operations application scheme. Eng. Mansour was later promoted to be the Head of Systems Development, the Director of the Department of Systems Transfer and Development, and the Assistant General Manager of Operations Systems, to finally reach a post of PPC’s Honorary General Manager of Operations and Communications Systems in 2015. Eng. Mansour convincingly told to Egypt Oil&Gas: “Women have joined the oil and gas industry and can succeed in it as much as men.”

These cases show that it is only a question of time before governments the world over create a framework, under which women will be welcome to the industry. If efficiently implemented, such a design can paint a brighter future for the industry as a whole and bring about direct benefits to the economies of hydrocarbon-rich countries.

Attracting Women to Oil & Gas

Global and local efforts to build such an inclusive, gender diverse work environment cannot succeed without individual companies pitching in to help governments in attracting women to the industry.

As respondents to the NES’ survey said, companies’ task is to reach out to women and inform them early about career opportunities in the oil and gas industry in that they will be encouraged to apply for positions within. “Engaging with young women both at school and at university, providing role models and an opportunity to see for themselves what the sector has to offer through visits and paid internships, will ensure that oil and gas companies will benefit from the untapped talent of those female engineers whose skills will, otherwise, be recognized and rewarded elsewhere,” Professor of Science Engagement at the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Reading, Averil Macdonal,  said in an interview with Industry Insight.

In addition, the private sector is expected to give women a chance to take on more challenging roles, such as those in the offshore sector. Encouraging women to join the oil and gas arena and take on more responsible roles within would bring forward a series of competitive advantages.

Lastly, oil and gas firms should outline mechanisms that would guarantee equal benefits and opportunities for their female employees. “The existing labor law in relation to women in the oil and gas should be revised to suit their needs better and to come in parallel to the Egyptian Labor Law,” May Shoukry from PPC proposed. Accordingly, “some companies like the Cairo Oil Refining Company (CORC) had asked for the permission from the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation (EGPC) to apply a certain law, based on which the company would be allowed to appoint an employee to a higher position, if all other staff, who had been hired in the same year, were already promoted.”

Henceforth, promotions should be granted upon “scientific tests and human skills’ tests to assess potentials of the employees. This will not be useful only for women, whose promotions are affected by lawful leaves, but also for men in their career path,” according to Eng. Amal Mansour.

It appears almost necessary that oil and gas producing countries and companies in the industry would stop wasting time pondering about the bodily suitability of women for the profession. Instead, they should merge their efforts to design sustainable legal, managerial, and operational frameworks for the inclusion of female employees into the structures. Adopting such a proactive and positive approach would enhance capacities in individual countries to withstand demanding challenges that the global oil and gas industry has been facing.

diversity gender balance inclusion women in energy

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