Creating a gender balance in the oil and gas sector

Cover Story: While the oil and gas sector is still male-dominated, engineering-minded associations are working to motivate more women to work in the field.

By Pam Duncan September 15, 2017

While technology and engineering constantly evolve, the gender balance is an issue that still needs to be addressed by those who work in the sector. Throughout history, the engineering industry has traditionally underplayed its female workforce. For example, how many people could name the famous male machinist and engineer who industrialized car production in 1920s America (Henry Ford), compared to the female engineer—and movie star—behind a remote-controlled communications system for the U.S military during World War II which now serves as a basis for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi network connections (Hedy Lamarr).

Male-dominated sectors such as the oil and gas industry have been working hard over the years to address this issue and at the same time encourage and attract more females into engineering from an early age.

Earlier this year, the oil and gas industry’s safety, standards, and workforce development organization, OPITO published its Youth Perception Report. More than 500 school and college students from key energy hubs around the U.K. were asked their opinions about the future of the industry.

The report showed that 81% of respondents still are interested in pursuing a career in the oil and gas industry. Among those who were surveyed between the ages 14 and 21, the top three reasons were the opportunity to work around the world (24%), the development and use of cutting edge science and technology (20%), and salary (19%). However, only approximately 20% of those surveyed and who wanted to pursue a career in the energy sector were women.

John McDonald, chief executive at OPITO and a member of the Scottish Government’s Energy Jobs Taskforce, said, "Whilst there is much positivity to take from this report, it is clear that we need to continue to find ways of attracting more women into the sector. Estimates around the proportion of female employees in the oil and gas workforce generally average around 20%.

"The oil and gas sector is incredibly broad in terms of the spectrum of career options it offers. However, the technical job roles like technicians and engineers still suffer from the stigma of being traditionally seen as male roles.

"Similarly, girls aren’t always actively encouraged to choose science and maths subjects at school or to take part in extra-curricular activities like science fairs and engineering competitions in the same way boys are.

"At the other end of the scale, there’s also the need to attract and recruit experienced engineers. It is critical that employers can tap into as wide a pool of talent as possible, a task made significantly more difficult if the large proportion of females qualified in these disciplines cannot be enticed to enter or stay in the sector."

Apprenticeships for women

OPITO is involved in several industry initiatives throughout the year to help engage with young people, attract fresh talent, and support the sector’s ongoing growth. The organization also manages events to promote awareness such as the Oil and Gas Technical Apprentice Programme (OGTAP) in partnership with the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board. The program has seen 70 female apprentices successfully enter the industry through this program. It includes a 21-month period at college to gain nationally-recognized qualifications, followed by two years of on-the-job training with the sponsoring company.

More than a dozen operator and service supply businesses participate and sponsor these programs to support apprentices, including Shell, BP, Chevron Upstream Europe, Repsol Sinopec Resources U.K. Ltd., Aker Solutions, Wood Group, and Maersk Oil North Sea U.K. Ltd.

"A prosperous and thriving engineering industry is vital for the U.K.’s economic future. Research by Engineering U.K. found an additional 1.8 million engineers and technically qualified people will be needed by 2025. So, as well as the requirement to retain a significantly higher proportion of qualified personnel for key careers, the need to attract new talent has never been more important," said McDonald.

While placements are by merit, more needs to be done to inform young women about rewarding engineering careers, with global travel available in many industries, including the energy sector.

"The values, interests, experience, and approaches women bring to the sector can differ from those contributed by men, helping to lead our industry and its technology in new directions. We as an industry must change our cultural message to show that females represent a resource base of talent for science, technology, and innovation."

The next generation of female engineers

In the past, the oil and gas sector has had few female role models for young women to see clearly how their subject choices at school can translate into careers in the oil and gas sector. One of the company’s leading the way in this area is Maersk Oil North Sea U.K. Ltd. Almost half of the firm’s U.K. leadership team are women, 23% of its employees are female and Gretchen Watkins stepped up from chief operating officer to CEO last year.

Lauren McIntosh, 24, from Monifieth in Dundee, Scotland, is a former OGTAP process technician. She completed her apprenticeship with Maersk Oil North Sea U.K. Ltd. this summer and is now a production improver with the company.

"I had previously begun studying neuroscience at university, but I didn’t enjoy it and didn’t like the thought of working in an office or at a desk all day. I liked the idea of working in an environment where every day is different. My typical day now involves operating and monitoring plant equipment to ensure safe and efficient production of oil and gas.

"When I was at college I’d say approximately 10% of my year were females. At Maersk Oil U.K. Ltd. most of my technical colleagues are men, but we do have a strong representation of women in the business. Almost half of our U.K. leadership team are women in roles like asset director, subsurface director and HSSEQ director. Maersk Oil also has a female CEO, Gretchen Watkins."

McIntosh said too many women still don’t see engineering as a viable option and "may even feel intimidated by the thought of working in a male-dominated industry," adding that people usually are surprised she works offshore as a technician.

"I think more should be done to encourage girls from a young age that engineering is an option for them. In schools, female engineers could give talks about their experiences and why they have chosen a career and engineering and hopefully encourage others to do the same," McIntosh said. 

Currently in her final year of OGTAP, 20-year-old Ellie Mair is from Buckie in Moray, Scotland. She works a "three weeks on, three weeks off" rotation for Chevron North Sea Ltd. on the Alba North fixed platform in the U.K. Central North Sea.

"My role as an electrical technician apprentice mainly entails the maintenance of electrical equipment from inspection checks to preventive and corrective maintenance on motors, transformers, lighting, batteries and UPS, explosive atmosphere equipment, etc., as well as fault finding and repairs on breakdowns," Mair said.

"I also get exposure to the operational side of things, such as isolating high-voltage drives and controlling platform power generation," she said, explaining that engineering grants her what she wants in life. "I could not envisage myself sitting at a desk, working nine-to-five Monday to Friday with little time to entertain my real passion for travelling the world… a career offshore will allow me the time and the money to do this."

"Offshore, there are normally around three women on board at any one time to 100-plus men, this includes the catering staff. I’ve been told that the Norwegian offshore sector is almost 50:50 female to male. I’m not sure why Norway has more equality; maybe it’s a cultural thing, and more women want to work in engineering, or maybe they have more opportunities or had more open and encouraging attitudes decades ago.

"Most girls I know aren’t interested in engineering as a subject in general, and a few girls have asked me why I don’t find it intimidating to work surrounded by males, so I believe ‘having it in you’ is a big factor. I think until the ratio changes, attitude towards having to work with men plays a massive role. But I don’t think it will ever change because speaking from an offshore point of view, and not the engineering industry in general, if you don’t see it as a vocation, there’s nothing overtly enticing for women to consider this as a career option.

"I believe the glass ceiling does still exist. Guys I work with speak about retirement and how they’ve done 36 years offshore, and I sit listening and thinking, ‘How can this ever be me if I want to start a family at some point?’ Of course, you can go back to work after babies but it would mean via an onshore route and most likely a slower progression compared to a male counterpart who joined the industry at the same time as I did. In a way, the biology and the time away from work can’t be denied, so in my opinion, I’m not sure how much can be done to change this barrier."

Operating company Shell is one of the major OGTAP sponsors. Amy Henderson, who is 21 and from Kennoway in Fife, Scotland, recently completed her apprenticeship with the firm.

She works as an instrument technician onshore at the Fife Natural Gas Liquids (FNGL) Mossmorran Fractionation Plant near Cowdenbeath in Fife, which Shell operates.

"My older brother completed the OGTAP apprenticeship as an electrical technician. He recommended the program to me but said I might find instrumentation was more suited to me-he was right.

"I hadn’t done anything relating to engineering when at school except sciences, and I had never heard of instrumentation so I thought it (OGTAP) would allow me to learn something new and would be different from an ordinary office job. I thought it would be a reliable job with a good income.

"My role includes carrying out planned routine maintenance and corrective maintenance on instrumentation equipment. I like how everyday can be different, and you are always learning something new.

"I think so many girls do not choose to study or work in engineering because it’s often seen as a ‘man’s job’ and not very appealing to many females. This could be because it’s most likely they will have a majority of male colleagues, but I have not found this an issue as I am treated as an equal. They may also not like the idea of wearing the PPE [personal protective equipment] and potentially getting a bit dirty. I didn’t particularly like having to wear the PPE at the start, but you get used to it. It’s like any job that requires a uniform but this one is functional, as it makes you easily identifiable to your colleagues and your clothes cleaner." 

Jennifer Atkinson is an OGTAP instrumentation and control maintenance apprentice. The 23-year-old from Orkney, Scotland works with her sponsoring company Repsol Sinopec Resources U.K. Ltd. as an instrument technician on the onshore terminal in Flotta. Her role involves the maintenance of the equipment and instruments at the facility.

Repsol Sinopec Resources U.K. Ltd. currently sponsors 45 OGTAP apprentices in different stages of the program.

Atkinson said more needs to be done to inspire women to consider a career in instrumentation and controls "I think there is still a lack of encouragement for girls to choose engineering subjects and interests from a young age," Atkinson said. "I was never told about apprenticeships at school and in my experience, just not as encouraged into the field as boys."

More should be done to stop imposing gender divisions at a young age, she said, adding that the gender associations should stop, such as with blue and pink toys and certain school subjects. "I would strongly encourage young girls to go for it. There’s still a clear divide in the industry, and it’s still a male-dominated one. The U.K. has surprisingly low numbers of professional female engineers compared to other countries, and they’re crying out for them. Most importantly, engineering is fun; you get to fix things, and you can apply these skills to life outside work too."

In addition, Atkinson said interest from an early age isn’t necessarily required, explaining that she had travelled as well as worked as a relief social care assistant with the elderly prior to the apprenticeship.

Pam Duncan is the senior account manager at The Big Partnership. Edited by Emily Guenther, associate content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


Key Concepts

  • Initiatives to promote women in engineering
  • The status of women in the oil and gas sector
  • Programs that help promote gender balance within the oil and gas industry.

Consider this

What are you doing to promote gender balance in engineering?

Original content can be found at Oil and Gas Engineering.