Women and change in the oil and gas industry

The oil and gas industry is still very male-dominated. Workingmums.co.uk spoke to headhunter Jane Christopherson about efforts to boost the number of women at senior levels.

The number of women working in the oil and gas industry rose slightly in the last year, from 7.l per cent to 7.8 per cent, according to Hays’ Global Salary Guide 2012.
The Guide says it will take 30 years to achieve gender parity at this rate.
Oil and gas is historically very much a male-dominated industry, but according to Jane Christopherson, a partner at the Curzon Partnership headhunting firm who specialises in the oil and gas industry, the number of men and women emerging from university with a geoscience degree is now fairly even.
However, she says, a combination of factors is holding women back. They include a lack of flexible working and the fact that the industry is very international with a heavy onus on travel which does not work well with families.
She feels that introducing quotas for the number of women on the boards of oil and gas companies would not solve the problem of women’s career progression, although she understands people’s frustrations at the slow rate of progress. “I don’t think quotas will produce the solutions that we need long term,” she says. “There will be errors made in the profile of people who are promoted to boards. In oil and gas, for instance, there are fewer women who are board ready.”
She suggests that Britain learn from countries which have introduced quotas about the positives and negatives. Nevertheless, she thinks the discussion around women on the boards is useful in giving the issue greater impetus.

Jane’s own career gives a hint of some of the issues involved. She has been working in the oil and gas industry since she graduated in 1995 with degrees in geology and petroleum engineering. Growing up in the North of Scotland she was always aware of the industry.
She chose to study geology because she loved it then she realised she could use her degree in industry. She did an internship at BP over one summer and was sponsored for her masters by another international company. She was the only woman on her masters course. “It never put me off,” she says. “I found the oil and gas industry incredibly exciting. I wanted to travel and get involved in the technical side.”
Initially, she worked as a reservoir engineer for Powergen North Sea then she moved to Cal Energy where she was a senior reservoir engineer, working in Poland, the UK and Australia. In her first job there were no other women in technical roles. In her second there were a few.
However, after a few years she had “a lightbulb moment” when she realised “I would never have a relationship or stability if I was working offshore a lot of the time.”
She was indeed sitting offshore in 2001 when she saw an advert for a technical specialist in the oil and gas sector in the Curzon Partnership. “I thought it would be a positive change, giving stability and also allowing me to us my personality more,” she says.
She had her first child in 2006. Two years later she had her second and she is still on maternity leave after having her third five months ago. She has gone back to work full time after each pregnancy, but with a good degree of flexibility. “It’s a dream job,” she says. “I have a good degree of flexibility while still working incredibly hard and meeting my clients’ demands. That means I can work around the needs of my family. I am full time, but that does not mean full time in the office.”

Flexible working
Jane believes that if the oil and gas industry embraced flexible working it would retain more women.
“I have come across a number of women who want to re-enter the industry, but want to do so part time,” she says, adding that companies are reluctant to take someone new on on a part-time basis. “Being a working mum this makes me mad,” she says, “because I know that if you give women a bit of flexibility they will give you 120% more back, but it’s hard to get people to shift from the status quo." 
She tries to push against this. "Most companies will say they are doing their best to retain and promote women, but as an industry the issue is not really addressed," she says. "It is more worried about skills shortages and trying to get students to take the right courses at university. It’s not interested in changing the terms and conditions of how they work in the industry. It’s also an industry that is not very good at its own PR which includes making itself more attractive to potential employees.”
Jane believes that progress will come on flexible working, in part because men are demanding it more and more. “I say to my clients that it’s fine to offer a good salary and package, but if someone works for a company which offers them a nine-day fortnight they will struggle to get them away from that organisation. People don’t necessarily just go for the things that have pound signs in front of them. More and more it’s about things like more holiday or carers leave or flexible working,” says Jane.
She adds that the current economic situation might provide further impetus for change. “We’re in a tight market at the moment,” she states. “It’s a nervy time to move companies. Our clients are listening. Change will happen because it has to.”

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