Select Country
Follow Us

Women Making Slow Gains in the Oil and Gas Industry

Sheryl Sandberg’s recently created a series of images with Getty to introduce more realistic portrayals of women in the 21st century.  They break gender stereotypes and make a strong statement challenging the make-up of traditionally “male” roles such as engineering and physics.

One of these traditionally male-dominated areas is the oil and gas industry, which has some catching up to do when it comes to creating a gender-balanced workforce. It is described by some as “a boys’ club” and the statistics back this up —72 percent of oil and gas professionals believe oil and gas remains a male-dominated industry. However, most of those responding to a survey by BP and Rigzone said it was quite or very important for the industry to do everything possible to make it more attractive to women.

“We’ll never have the best industry if we can’t attract the best talent regardless of gender,” said Paul Caplan, President of Rigzone, the online oil and gas data resource. “While barriers still exist and companies can do more to ensure fairness, an oil and gas career offers tremendous global career opportunities, complex problems to solve and above average pay—all reasons talented professionals should consider energy first.”

Finding a solution to this gender imbalance is vital. The oil and gas industry needs a healthy pipeline of talent to continue to innovate in a world with escalating energy demands. As further evidence of the value of a gender-balanced company, a recent study by Gallup found that gender-diverse business units can have revenues 14 percent higher than less diverse units.

“The population of our country is far more diverse than this industry as a whole, so I think the industry has some work to do,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told the Houston Chronicle’s FuelFix blog.  A former pioneering female oil patch worker herself, Jewell said she doesn’t “see the level of diversity that reflects the U.S. population” in the industry today.  “We all need to work together to create an environment that is welcoming of women, of people of color, of people with different backgrounds, because the industry is missing some super-talented folks who could strengthen it,” Jewell said.

Women are beginning to pay more attention to the field. According the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics women filled nearly one-third of the jobs added in the upstream oil and natural gas segment during the first quarter of 2013. And a new report from IHS Global says that by 2030 the industry could add 185,000 more women to its ranks. The report outlines the following growth opportunities for women in the field:

  • Women will share in the growth of more skilled white-collar jobs in the industry. Opportunities will exist for female petroleum engineers, managers, and other professionals, with the number of job opportunities projected for women in these areas growing by almost 70,000 from 2010 to 2030.
  • The already low shares of women in the semi-skilled and unskilled blue-collar occupational   groups are projected to decline further, which will hold down the overall increase in female   employment in the industry. However, there is significant potential for female blue-collar employment due to the large number of job opportunities projected in blue-collar positions; interest and training need to exist to increase female participation in these areas.
  • The share of women in the traditionally female-dominated ‘Office and Administrative Support ’ (OAS) category in the oil and gas industry will fall over the forecast period, although this category remains a large source of potential job opportunities for women.
  • Nearly as many jobs will be added for women in the ‘Management, Business and Financial’   and  ‘Professional and Related’ occupational categories as in the OAS category over this period.


Communities where oil and natural gas development is occurring also offer opportunities for women entrepreneurs, says the IHS study, which was sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute.  The report presents the example of Kathy Neset, president of Neset Consulting Service, who started her business of 180 employees in North Dakota in 1981 to assist oil companies with horizontal drilling activities in the state. According to Neset, “There are great opportunities for good-paying professional jobs such as geologists, engineers, and surveyors.”

Beyond the challenges of the oil and gas industry being a male dominated field, there are also family commitment issues to deal with.

The industry often conjures up visions of long stretches spent on isolated oil rigs. Companies in the industry need to be aware of this and help men and women to balance family commitments, through flexible working to accommodate child care, extended maternity leave and support with placing children in good local schools.

“The industry just needs to present a more compelling picture of these benefits,” says Julie Dewane, vice president Global Supply Chain, GE Oil & Gas Global. “I don’t think we do a good job of painting an appealing picture of engineering for young women and this is something we need to work on as an industry,” she said.

Research shows that by the time many girls leave school they have already ruled out engineering as a career path. So it makes sense to explore how to reach out to school children to inspire them to pursue this career. However, as oil and gas is a global industry, this must always be done in a culturally sensitive way.

“In Saudi Arabia, the majority of women don’t work. This is a challenge we’re trying to overcome and the Government is supportive,” said Kent Christensen, an HR professional for Saudi Aramco. “We’re helping to tackle this by going into schools, inspiring young female students to see their future potential,” Christensen said. “By directly partnering with schools we can ensure we’re supportive to the local community and delicate in our approach,” he said.  “You can’t just march into a country and adopt your own methodologies. The key is understanding the local culture and operating environment, then tailoring a solution to them.

One of the best ways to attract more women into the oil and gas industry is to provide strong female role models, says a recent survey from NES Global Talent. The survey asked women in the oil and gas industry a series of questions about their work.  An overwhelming 95 percent of respondents said they thought mentors were important for career advancement.

“This presents an area of opportunity for the oil and gas industry,” the NES survey said. “By highlighting mentorship schemes and showing exactly how they have helped women to progress, the sector can show it is committed to nurturing female talent in a male dominated environment.”

There are now some standout examples of very powerful women in the oil and gas sector, such as Maria das Gracas Silva Foster, head of Brazil’s national oil company, who was named by Fortune magazine as the most powerful female executive in the world.

Nishi Vasudeva has recently been appointed as the first woman to lead an oil company in India, Hindustan Petroleum. She comments on gender perceptions in the industry in an interview with The Times of India:

I do not see gender as a handicap. There are women on the board of Engineers India and Oil India… As long as the women in the industry give their best as professionals, they will get due recognition.

That may be the case but with any minority, it is important to offer extra support so they can gain their foothold and make their presence felt. There are a number of female networking groups springing up within oil and gas companies offering this support.

In Australia, the Women in Oil & Gas network (WIOG) helps women in oil and gas companies to network and promote diversity in the industry. The American community WOGA (Women in Oil and Gas Association) holds similar ambitions. GE’s own ‘Women’s Network’ supports current female employees in networking and training to help them reach leadership level in their organization.

With small steps like these, it’s encouraging to see that the tables are beginning to turn. It’s slow progress but progress nonetheless for the future of an industry that depends on broadening its talent pool through welcoming more women and more ethnic diversity.

“It’s not just the volume of human capital required,” says GE’s Dewane, “but the different approaches and perspectives which will help ensure the industry’s future.”

Women Making Slow Gains in the Oil and Gas Industry was originally published on Ideas Lab

Subscribe to our GE Brief