Often when one examines the oil and gas industry from a bird’s eye view, it is obvious that men largely dominate the industry. Women, however, are dispersed across the industry and only a few of them manage to reach a C-Suite level. There is clearly an imbalance that perhaps the 1964 satirical Egyptian movie, ‘For Men Only’, highlighted best when it tackled the topic of sexism in the oil and gas industry. Certainly, the industry has come a long way since then, but there is so much more that should be done.

Expectations vs. Reality

From the outside looking in, the oil and gas industry is viewed as a reputable but dangerous business. Before joining the oil and gas industry, Ola Balbaa, Drilling Engineer, “looked at [the industry] as a prestigious high-level kind of career and acknowledged how critical it is and that it requires strong engineering skills.” Working in fields requires demanding efforts from all workers, be it women or men; however, being a woman adds more pressure to the situation. Balbaa explained that the burden of “proving myself among men” was a companion to her common challenges and the discouraging comments. “You get the treatment of a poor girl who will collapse in a day or two and will never continue with this job. That made me do double the effort to prove them wrong, besides my normal challenging job duties,” Balbaa added.

Reiterating Balbaa’s notion, Rana Elkady, Senior Health, Safety, and Environment (HSE) Engineer, stated that “personal mentality and internal regulations of the organization” poses a different type of challenge that women face. Elkady noted that the personal mentality of some managers hinders women’s opportunities to work in fields; “the work itself is not difficult for women, but it is more difficult for some managers and workers to believe in the abilities of women to innovate… and deal with her presence as a normal thing.” Similarly, Sarah Badr, a Geologist, noted that such stereotypes exist in any job where women are not as present as their counterparts. Badr said that “naturally when you do not see a lot of women developing their skills in challenging STEM-related fields, it starts to become normal to assume that they don’t fit there.”

On the other hand, Maureen Amir, Completion Engineer at BP, offered a different perspective based on her experience. Beginning her career working on offshore rigs, Amir had her presumed fears and worries about the industry dissipate as she was offered help and support from her peers. Yet, it was not all roses; “I had to work very hard to prove myself, and I had to fight a lot of stereotypes along the way, but it was all rewarding when the right level of support and recognition is received,” Amir explained.

Likewise, Zahraa Alkalby, Reservoir Engineer at Total and Chair of Diversity and Inclusion at the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) International, recalled her journey starting in a remote field with a few ladies only and surrounded by talks about the difficulties of the industry for women, yet, she persisted. In her own words, Alkalby noted that being in the field “helped other women to follow the same path, to end up having from less than one hand count to more than 25 women working in the field within few years.” This shift helped in recognizing the value of setting an example and encouraging more women to join the industry, Alkalby added.

Cultural Bias

It seems clear that when it comes to hiring women in the oil and gas industry, the male gaze often disregards women’s capabilities through a lens of unconscious cultural bias. With such an unjust bias, there is a significant monetary imbalance that comes with it. Badr stated that “on one side, men can get paid more for the same amount of work contributing to a growing pay-gap. On the other side, access to fieldwork can be limited and only offered to male employees.” This is directly linked to the hiring and inclusion of women in the industry in addition to the cultural aspect that keeps the industry in its place instead of pushing it forward. Such bias and uncalled for limitations take away any progress that had been made.

In the words of the French writer, Simone de Beauvoir, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”, which perfectly summarizes the society’s apprehension of women in energy as an ‘unnatural’ position. It is a noticeable societal trait that when “women pursue a career in the oil and gas industry especially field-based positions, as a technical person, [women are] usually faced with a lot of opposition from society and culture as a not suitable and too tough domain for females,” Alkalby stated. This could have drastic changes in the road to equality within the industry; as Amir puts it, it could “drive women to opt for a career in any STEM program other than oil and gas.”. Thus, widening the gender gap even further.

Cultural bias for women in energy extends beyond technical capabilities as it digs deep into character. Both Alkalby and Badr remarked that assertive women are often described as bossy, and outspoken women are labeled as emotional, unlike their male counterparts. This kind of biased view leads women to exert more effort to prove their accomplishments and seek promotions.

Breaking the Cycle

The shared challenge among these women seemed to be an instilled cultural bias against women who are seen in a position that is usually reserved for a man. Turning a blind eye to these acts will only promote it further. One way to break the cycle is “through various training courses, workshops, and building a culture that respects and appreciates what diversity brings to the business in terms of different perspectives and a wider pool of talents,” as Alkalby suggested. Elkady added that “updating the old regulations that still exist in some companies which prevent female work in sites,” is essential for women’s advancement. Building on that point, Badr remarked that “employers need to be mindful about creating fair access to work opportunities to women without making assumptions about certain career-related challenges that automatically exclude women.”

To create actual change, women should have a seat at the table and make their voices heard. Amir states that “a standardization in the recruitment and promotion process with pre-defined criteria that is focused on performance and capabilities is a first step towards minimizing the effect of unconscious bias in the workplace.” This brings another idea into the light which is the power of mentorship and the power it comes with. Balbaa reiterated the same notion indicating that when women are in a position to lead, they set an example to be followed and become role models to the next generations to come. Alkalby affirmed corporates’ role in creating change highlighting the need “to have an action plan with measured metrics to increase women’s representation starting from removing structural barriers that can hinder women working in the industry to increase the visibility of senior female role models.”

In the fight for equality, it is vital to acknowledge the breakthroughs companies have taken in recent years. Elkady reflected on the challenges she went through at the beginning of her career noting that after shifting between office and fieldwork, her fieldwork became a norm in the company and was praised for it. Numerous companies are now diverging from cultural and societal impediments, shifting their gaze from gender and focus on improving great talents in addition to offering flexible career paths that empower women. Badr noted that “if we keep this pace, a lot of stigmas that face women who choose demanding roles could be easily lifted and we can see more women represented in senior positions as well.”

Alkalby heeded that nowadays international companies reserve a fixed percentage of women in recruiting and upper management, which is a step up from the old days. Alkalby remarked that “while this usually faced criticism, some debate that this is an unfair treatment for skilled men, -another unconscious bias- I can witness good improvements.” In the route to balancing the scales, such a move sets an excellent example for other companies to adapt and follow, she added. Perhaps Amir could attest to such an improvement noting that now women represent about 30% of leadership positions. “I am lucky to be employed in a company that strives to achieve gender balance as I have seen that increase in the percentage of women in leadership positions materialize over the past four years. During my time, I have also seen more Egyptian women work on rigs on a rotational basis, a progress that I am enormously proud of,” Amir elaborated.

The COVID-19 Impact

Even though the world is still trying to cope with a global pandemic, it has certainly created a ripple effect that extended to women’s position in energy. Evidently, it posed a new challenge for working mothers. There is, however, a bright side which lies in having more family time and flexible working hours, Alkalby stated, “the drawback is in losing a life-work balance where work amalgamates with what is supposed to be personal and family times.” On that note, Balbaa explained that the pandemic posed a difficulty to all working parents in general, not just mothers, adding that companies’ acknowledgment of this predicament helps in supporting a healthy work-life balance for all genders.

Elkady perceived that the pandemic led to a decrease in the number of women in energy as there are no regulations requiring companies to maintain a fixed female capacity in fieldwork. However, the pandemic led both women and men in energy to lose their jobs, Elkady explained, this abundance of capabilities could create additional challenges for women as it appears that until now some job postings request men only to apply. That being said, Badr indicated that “the pandemic could waste years’ worth of efforts to attract women talents to such a demanding industry if flexibility is not present. In such a challenging time, de-prioritizing the focus on promoting women could happen, which can be a sit back if not addressed.” Badr adds that, during such times, it is crucial to be mindful as to not waste the progress made so far in addressing workplace gender gaps.

The issue of women in the oil and gas industry has been talked about since women got involved in the business. The call for diversity has been getting louder and louder over the past few years and it is essential to acknowledge that empowering women and allowing them the same opportunities as their counterparts is the only step towards progress. It is vital to remember that it is not just about gender diversity, but rather about diversity in thoughts, decision making, and leadership skills which makes any workplace more balanced and efficient.