Communication, flexibility offer solutions

Women Find Their Place in Industry

Despite plummeting commodity prices, oil and gas companies in general have indicated they’ll keep going after new-hires to beef up lean staffs – a hangover-type situation caused in part by the massive layoffs during previous downturns in the industry.

The ongoing need for skilled, qualified people appears to be altering the makeup of the traditionally male-dominated industry – slowly but surely.

The fourth annual Women’s Global Leadership Conference (WGLC) left no doubt that professional women are finding a place in the business – and making their presence known.

Sara Akbar
Sara Akbar

Nearly 1,000 businesswomen, executives and industry leaders from top energy companies worldwide assembled at the November confab in Houston, according to Maggie Seeliger, vice-president for strategic business development at event-host Gulf Publishing Co.

Seeliger noted the annual event provides a forum for women in the energy industry to discuss key business and economic issues and gather insight from world leaders in energy, government, politics and academia. Discussions focused on issues ranging from responsible stewardship to professional development strategies.

Topics discussed included:

  • Alternative energy.
  • Global energy marketplace.
  • Wall Street and the industry.
  • Demand for energy versus the environment.
Let’s Talk Sex

The dearth of new talent coming into the business has been the source of much angst industry-wide as many of the remaining longtime stalwarts continue to opt for retirement or other pursuits.

It’s perhaps more urgent than ever to convince women they can play a vital role in the energy business.

“The grand challenge is not energy supply but where will the talent come from that is required to develop today’s fossil energy so we can afford to transition to tomorrow’s energy alternatives,” said Scott Tinker, president of AAPG, which participated as an event sponsor.

Tinker was a keynote speaker at the recent Women’s Global Leadership Conference in Houston.
Tinker was a keynote speaker at the recent Women’s Global Leadership Conference in Houston.

Tinker – who is director of the Bureau of Economic Geology, State Geologist of Texas and the Edwin Allday Chair of Subsurface Geology at the University of Texas at Austin – was a keynote speaker at the WGLC event.

“I’m convinced that the opportunities and challenges in energy are of such significance that it requires both genders working together,” Tinker said, “to bring our own strengths and unique talents to bear to solve the issues that face the planet.”

“What worries me is we have over 50 percent women in our undergraduate school majoring in geology/ geosciences,” Tinker noted, “and it starts to decline through graduate school and then through years in industry to the point where it’s 10 to 15 percent.

“I know we’re losing good technical people and managers,” he said, “and that’s not acceptable.

“Still, I’ve seen examples of really great change and improvement,” Tinker added. “It varies by company, sometimes by country.”

No doubt there are many variables impacting the still-low numbers of women in the industry. Tinker appeared to cut to the chase when he noted “two of the greatest impediments to reasonable parity between men and women are, in no particular order, men and women.

“As I gather data and experiment with various employment models,” he said, “I have found that solutions can be best summed up in two words: communication and flexibility.”

Survey Results

Companies increasingly are allowing flexible work schedules to accommodate various situations, e.g., dual career couples with small offspring to care for, spousal transfer situations where the “trailing” spouse is allowed to continue work from out-of-state, etc., etc.

Still flexibility must be managed with care lest flexibility dysfunction set in where the situation is so flexile the job does not get done.

Two surveys were conducted in conjunction with the WGLC to gather data on professional development obstacles facing women in the industry.

Gulf Research implemented a Web survey of female executives in the oil patch. Detailed, open-ended responses were received from 12 qualified participants with five to 25 years of industry experience. The respondents held titles that included CFO, senior marketing manager, regulatory affairs manager, human resources manager, director, geologist and production engineer.

Seeligson noted the small sample was intended to provide insight and not generalizations and projections for all female executives.

Results from the focus survey included:

  • Creating and promoting an environment that is aligned with women’s needs will facilitate recruitment and retention in the energy industry.
  • Both business savvy and interpersonal skills are necessary to be successful in the energy industry.
  • Overcoming gender bias and balancing family are common obstacles women face.
  • Despite progress, respondents believe that a glass ceiling still restricts them from advancement in the industry.
  • Some respondents are happy with their career path, while others believe they had to choose between family and advancement.

The second survey, powered by WHAMmobile, requested conference attendees to answer five questions using mobile texting. Key results included:

  • 57 percent of respondents were interested in staying in the energy industry for their entire careers.
  • 30 percent have worked in the energy industry less than two years.
  • 91 percent said they face more career growth obstacles than men in the energy industry.
  • 86 percent said access to networking opportunities for women has improved over the last five years.
  • 35 percent said their company doesn’t provide enough opportunity for women to grow in their careers.

Tinker noted that AAPG’s committee on Promoting Professional Women in Earth Sciences recently conducted a work force retention survey. Preliminary and incomplete findings were included in the December EXPLORER; final analyzed results also will be published in the EXPLORER and on the AAPG Web site.

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Ceiling Created Independent Path

Professional women are no longer the rarity they once were at the E&P companies.

Still, they don’t necessarily settle in for the long haul.

Like their predecessors who jumped into the fray 20 or more years ago, there continues to be a smattering of smart, savvy women in the E&P corporate milieu who ultimately decide the glass ceiling hovering over their collective heads just isn’t to their liking.

So they opt to bail out – but not necessarily out of the oil and gas business.

Armed with considerable acquired industry skills, a number of these independent-oriented folks strike out to make it on their own in whatever industry-related niche they determine best suits their talent, abilities and interests.

This was the case with Sara Akbar, CEO of Kuwait Energy Company, who presented the closing keynote speech at the recent Women’s Global Leadership Conference in Houston.

Prior to founding Kuwait Energy in 2005, Akbar held myriad high-level, challenging positions for 18 years at Kuwait Oil Company, followed by close to five years at Kuwait Foreign Petroleum Exploration Co.

Despite her many successes at these two companies, Akbar encountered various roadblocks/frustrations along the way, ultimately choosing to journey forth on what she viewed as a better path.

“I thought, do I have to live with a glass ceiling – and the answer was no,” Akbar said. “So I created my own company.

“I needed huge capital but did it in sequences,” she said. “It’s worth $750 million today, so it’s been profitable and rewarding.

“The focus is all on exploration,” Akbar noted, “and it’s one of the few successful independent E&P companies operating from the Middle East.”

The entrepreneurial Akbar postponed marriage and children until she was well along in her career. And when it comes to child care concerns and work-life balance that are weighty issues in today’s workplace, Akbar’s situation is to be envied by her Western counterparts.

“In my part of the world, we have extended families,” she said. “I live with my three brothers and their families, and my husband has been retired for seven years and also helps to look after the children – and there’s also cheap labor like maids, cooks, nannies.”

– LOUISE S. DURHAM