Celebrating Women’s History Month, Egypt Oil & Gas (EOG) highlights the achievements of successful women in the energy sector. Taking us throughout her journey in the oil and gas industry, Badria Khalfan, Chief HR Officer at Dragon Oil, explores the barriers she overcame and the progress that was made that led her to become a senior-level executive in a male-dominated industry.

Can you tell us about your journey into the human resources (HR) field within a male-dominated industry?

My journey in the oil sector, which is a male dominated industry, started around the late eighties when I decided to face the challenge of being the first fresh United Arab Emirates (UAE) graduate joining the oil sector in general and Abu Dhabi Marine Operating Co (ADMA-OPCO), the largest offshore oil company in Abu Dhabi in particular.

I faced many challenges and obstacles starting from recruitment, career, training and development, .etc., where I realized that my male colleagues were going through the career ladder at a much faster pace just for the simple reason that they are males.

Another major obstacle was, being in an offshore company, one of the job requirements was visiting fields and rigs. At that time, females were not allowed to visit such places. However, this did not stop me and I did not give up until I got the permission to make not just one visit, but regular visits and opened the door for the rest.

Being the first fresh female graduate has surrounded me with many obstacles throughout my career, and it took a longer time to reach the management level; but taking it positively, I went through a robust experience that enabled me to add to all the organizations I have worked for: ADMA-OPCO, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), Petroleum Institute and now in Dragon Oil.

How did the pandemic alter the way you lead?

During 2020, organizations have had to adapt and innovate due to the pandemic and its consequences. Our employees have had to change their working habits in order to ensure business continuity as usual. Leaders have had to make wiser decisions and manage people under circumstances they never could have imagined.

I cannot say that my core leadership style has changed; however, I have given much more into account the well-being of the employees, taking into consideration many struggles during the full lockdown and travel bans. With the working from home situation, I tried to heighten the focus on employees without interfering in their private lives by making regular meetings to just communicate mental and emotional support and focus on the fact that we were all in this together. During the full lockdown, I made it top priority to make time for both the formal and informal engagement at work, and as more and more people have returned back to the office, it was critical to ensure their safety and their psychological and physical readiness to do so. This was important as the situation varied from one location to the other and we had to do our best to make each one feel they are not alone and have full support from the company; we are one big family and they all have to feel safe and secure. For example: our team in Turkmenistan was locked for almost 11 months with no crew change due to COVID restrictions and no flights available. This was a huge challenge, which required tremendous intervention and communication with the government officials at all fronts to manage to bring them back to their families safely and successfully sending the crew change to site simultaneously to sustain operations.

And due to various challenges, we are in the middle between employees, new strategies, mind-set shift… I can say we worked days and nights to continue the operations.

My priority throughout this past year has been to adopt protocols that keep our employees and their families’ safe, and to look at everything from their perspective.

Also, with the pandemic consequences on oil prices, we were obviously affected similar to all organizations and we were obligated to cut costs but the challenge was wise cost optimization with minimal impact on employees.

What has been the most challenging task for you during the past year?

To normalize this “new normal”!

The wellbeing and safety of the employees is my number one priority, but also trying to keep them motivated, engaged and connected. Also, how to manage the operations with minimum disruptions and the oil prices consequences on budgets was extremely challenging as well.

From an HR perspective, how did you manage the toll of the pandemic on the employees at Dragon Oil?

We adopted the work from home like the majority of the companies. Using video conferencing, Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams… to stay connected with all our locations was key to sustain our business continuity. Dragon Oil also adopted the Dubai government guidance for reduced work schedules, work from home and rotation. Also, we encouraged them to have the vaccines and helped in the arrangement with authorities.  We also ensured regular PCR checkups for all employees and focused on their health and safety. Our employee’s commitment enabled us to sustain our performance in 2020, and will continue to do so until this pandemic is over.

What are the best strategies to recruit and/or retain skilled workers particularly during such unusual circumstances?

At Dragon Oil, we only recruited for the key critical roles, especially since we were in growing mode prior the pandemic, and all other vacancies were put on freeze. The layoffs by big majors made the pool in the market bigger and hence we worked on maximizing this opportunity to the best we can. For retention, we did not touch the remuneration of employees; however, we did place few minor benefits on hold until this period passes with minimum financial impact on our employees, and we also shifted internal mobility based on the talent inventory. Our target was to maintain most of our staff to preserve the great calibers we have which was the biggest challenge as the majority of the companies adopted layoffs aggressively while in Dragon Oil we did not do so except for a few performance-related staff. And on the contrary, we considered this a golden opportunity to maximize the utilization of our talented employees and re-organize the company with the right level and caliber of staff. I have done my best to strike the right balance. The company invested to get the best people and I was confident that the more I retain, it would serve the future growth plans of Dragon Oil.

In the oil and gas industry, women are often marginalized. In your opinion, what are the barriers women in the industry face? How could companies address this issue?

I think we passed this phase. Women have been proving there presence year by year in the oil and gas industry.

The main issue is the stereotyping of women’s capabilities by some mentalities and not rules and luckily, this is dissolving by time.

The barriers faced I believe are common across the industries. One of the main barriers is the working mother’s responsibilities which make them in need for more support at the early years for child care; hence, as a company we are very supportive and we provide flexible working hours to the best we can accommodate to help them during this phase of their careers.

Companies can address the differences between genders by taking the following serious steps to eliminate the gaps:

Set female’s % as an intake in all companies

Put females intake as an organization KPI

Board /leadership position to include number of female leaders

Introducing laws and regulations to ensure proper implementation

An organization that achieves female’s intake to be awarded in public, with media coverage

Government’s bodies/boards should follow up on implementation plans and achievements strategies

When it comes to bridging the gender gap in the oil and gas industry, how far did companies come from when you started your career?

Companies in the UAE have come a long way in reducing the gender gap. The government has put in place necessary legislations that enable women to work at a much easier and accepted high rates than before. The government has also taken extra efforts into emphasizing the importance of the woman and her role in the society and has placed her as an integral part of the economy.

Confidently, I can say in UAE there is no gender gap nowadays following many initiatives that have been adopted to eliminate this gap.

How can Arab oil and gas companies further bridge the gap between women and men in the industry across all of their divisions?

Companies have to work hard on training plans with equality. Gender should not count as skills, and the capability to deliver the company strategy is what should count. Flexible plans for women should always be part of the company’s strategy and work-life balance should always be one of the key priorities. Management should communicate with their female employees to understand any obstacles they may encounter and to share with them all they may need to succeed and move up within the company. Also, some laws and rules should be implemented in all companies; for example, the percentage of females in leadership positions, boards, etc. The more agile and accommodating the company becomes, the faster the pace to bridge the gap.

What advice would you give young professionals especially women pursuing a career in the energy industry?

The energy industry, like any other industry has its own challenges. If you are a committed dedicated woman, with good planning you will be able to succeed and compete in this industry. I always say that planning and management is more critical for women early on in their careers. You have to create your path and have confidence that you can achieve it successfully; look for a mentor or role model, seek her guidance and follow her pace to the best that meets your growth objective. If you are committed to your career plan and work on your milestones, you will be a leader and the future role model to someone else. Nowadays, young professionals have golden opportunities and more privileges than what we used to have and they should capitalize on them.

Do you think ‘Women in Energy’ focused events widens the gap between women and men in the industry?

Over the years, it is adding value to the industry and providing support to many women showing examples of successful women in the energy industry, which makes them feel they are supported and can have a fruitful career and compete equally and learn from the successful female leaders’ experiences.

As a leader in your field, what leadership lessons have you learned across your career? 

Resilience is what creates a successful future. Be yourself and understand your traits; hard work all the way through is an ingredient to be successful; do not give up when facing obstacles (all will be resolved and will be a lesson learnt). The most important lesson: commitment, commitment and commitment throughout your career.

What do you consider your biggest achievements over the course of your career?

The biggest achievement and I feel proud of it all the times, is that I am the first UAE female fresh graduate in the oil sector in Abu Dhabi, first manager and first executive level and still contributing in the oil companies. I was also the first female allowed to visit rigs and offshore locations at that time.

What do you aim to achieve next?

To continue participating in building talents and capabilities as a role model in the industry. Also, to document my career journey for others to learn from.

What was the biggest takeaway from 2020 for you? 

While technology is often blamed for dividing individuals, 2020 saw a great adoption of technology to keep people connected and engaged. In the world of work, one of the main changes of 2020 has been that employers came to understand just how productive their workforces can be when working remotely. I strongly believe that the widespread shift to a working from home model during the pandemic will encourage many business leaders, who were previously unsure or against remote working, to design long-term flexible working strategies for their employees. This will completely change how organizations are setup and structured in the near future. Furthermore, being ahead in technology and investing in it was one of the key reasons Dragon Oil was ready to face this unforeseen pandemic; no one could have predicted what happened in 2020 and it really was a revelation to the whole world.