Despite the continuous efforts by oil companies to recruit more women and make the workplace more hospitable for female employees, still more efforts are needed to bridge the gender gap in the sector. In an interview with EOG, Abdelaziz Khlaifat, Professor & Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies in the SSE, Petroleum and Energy Engineering, at The American University in Cairo (AUC), offers an insightful analysis of the roots and the potential solutions for the persisting problem.
The petroleum sector has been trying to tackle the gender gap for years. Do you think the problem still persists today with the same momentum? Please explain.
Yes, the problem still exists. The share of the female workforce in the oil and gas sector globally does not exceed 25%. When it comes to the Middle East and Egypt, this share goes down to 10% and less. The petroleum industry is tackling the gender gap by recruiting more women but they are not staying for long due to personal and societal reasons.
What are the main causes behind this problem? Do you think gender gap starts from the academia? If yes, can you elaborate on that?
Well, I believe the oil and gas industry gender gap is driven by many factors including employability and culture. University students’ specialization selection and declaration in Egypt and the Middle East is mostly decided by parents. The common belief is that working in the petroleum field is for men only. The American University in Cairo’s Fact Book shows that the percentage of enrolled female students in petroleum engineering is 35% in the undergraduate program and 30% in graduate (MSc) program. These percentages are greater than the international petroleum industry women share (22%) in the workforce and Egyptian’s oil and gas industry share of 10%. This means that the oil and gas gender gap passes through many gates starting from cultural issues (parent influence), then academia, then career obstacles including unfair evaluation for women capabilities to do the job with high level of competency.
How can the gender gap be addressed and properly tackled? And how should colleges and workplaces place a greater emphasis on equity and accessibility?
The gender gap issue in petroleum industry can be addressed by the so-called “reverse engineering”. What do I mean by that? Oil and gas service and operating companies have to increase female share when it comes to employability and this requires government involvement for enforcement. We have one unprecedented example in the region where Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) had designated a specific oil field to be fully operated by women.
What are universities doing or should do to attract more calibers to STEM education? And how can student recruitment and retention be addressed?
It is so important to get students excited about STEM teaching and learning. Universities have to shift towards project-based learning, teamwork, innovative tasks, and technology to stir students’ interest in a topic. This can include: relating science to students’ daily lives to learn by exploration, employing hands-on experience and team activities, using realistic learning activities, and incorporating innovation and student decision-making into classroom lessons and activities.
Students’ recruitment can be addressed by organizing open days where high school students can visit universities and tour their facilities to gain more understanding about what the university can offer. By doing this, students can weigh their options and select the right specialization and university. There are some other means of students recruitment including schools visits, emails, websites, etc.
Does the petroleum sector require certain specifications, qualifications, or capabilities? Furthermore, what do you recommend students to do to develop their skills to enter the market well-prepared?
The petroleum sector is developing at a very fast pace, meanwhile, it requires employees with strong IT, research, technical, problem solving, numerical, interpersonal, communication, and group working skills. Petroleum industry decisions involve multimillion dollars operations; hence the decision-makers have to have excellent engineering management skills and be accountable for their decision.
I would advise not only petroleum engineering students but also others engineering disciplines students to work on their hand-on experience and acquire professional certificates while they are doing their undergraduate studies.
What are the latest development and technological tools that facilitate petroleum engineering students’ learning experiences?
The tools used in the oil industry are very sophisticated and can withstand extreme and harsh conditions such as high temperature and high pressure. Nowadays, universities are capitalizing on this and increasing their utilization of the so cold dry labs to educate petroleum engineering students using real field data to carry out exploration data analysis, reservoir modeling and simulation, oil field production optimization, drilling, cementing and blowout prevention operations and others. In addition to labs and hands-on experiences students learn how to use supercomputers to simulate all mentioned above processes to address challenges and explore opportunities via parameterization and carrying out different analyses.
What do you recommend professors in this endeavor to do in order to bring real-world experience into the classroom?
In order to bring the real-world experience into the classroom university professors have to use different and unconventional strategies such as: being up to date with the development in the oil and gas field; taking their classes on field trips where they listen from professionals; involving guest speakers in their classes to complement the covered material by real-world examples and case histories; problem-solving using the real reservoir and field data; and focusing more on modeling, simulating real-field scenarios and carrying out what-if-analysis.
What would you tell students to help them in shaping their future expectations of the sector?
Oil and gas are and will be our bread and butter for the decades to come. In addition to transportation, buildings heating, and power generation, petroleum products are the raw materials (feedstock) for the petrochemical industry that results in the production of plastics, solvents, polyurethane (plastic materials in different forms), and hundreds of other intermediate and end-user goods/ applications used in our daily life.
Oil and gas production/business provides access to affordable energy, opportunities for decent employment of fresh graduates and professionals, business development opportunities, skills development arena, increased fiscal revenues for operating companies and countries, improved infrastructure in the country of production, and many more. Nowadays, we hear a lot about hydrogen cars and hydrogen production. Oil and gas production can foster hydrogen development projects.