How can we encourage more talented women to join the energy industry?

This article originally appeared in the February edition of Energy North. 

Written by Andrew Bradshaw.

I spend a lot of time travelling between Inverness and Aberdeen and, when possible, take the train.

It gives me the chance to do some work, but on those occasions when I can’t get a seat and have to stand (note: most peak times between Aberdeen and Insch), I inadvertently resort to that international past time of people watching.

Such was the situation recently, on a packed Inverness-bound carriage, when the doors crept open at Dyce and a petite young woman attempted to squeeze her way into the crowd.

Dressed in sweats and a body warmer and with a large holdall, I wondered what job she did and where she had been. From her clothing I thought she may be a fitness instructor, but the cigarettes in her bag made me think again. Next I thought she was maybe returning North from a holiday, having possibly flown into Aberdeen.

When we reached Insch and were all able to exhale and find seats, she ended up facing a colleague. It was only then from overhearing their conversation that I learned they both worked offshore in the oil industry. That induced two emotions in me: the first was surprise, immediately followed by disappointment in myself - because by not even thinking she may work in the sector I had displayed the very chauvinism that the industry has been accused of.

The simple fact is that women remain severely under represented in the oil and gas industry.

A recent biannual global workforce survey, conducted by OilCareers.com and Air Energi centred on this very topic, and the results were revealing.  More than 4,300 employees and hiring managers working in oil and gas took part, with the majority agreeing that initiatives to encourage more women into the industry have had mixed results at best.

Only 23% of respondents in Europe reported the gender gap was not a significant issue, while 52% stated that the industry culture created by a male dominated environment played a large role in deterring women from working in oil and gas positions.

The survey also highlighted confusion surrounding organisational initiatives designed to encourage more women in to oil and gas; 42% in the region stated that they did not know if their company currently had an active policy in place.

Figures published by Oil and Gas UK in 2014 indicated that there was a noticeable rise in the percentage of women employed in the oil and gas industry across the UK between 2006 and 2013. In that time there was a 46% rise in women working in the northern North Sea and the same rise in the burgeoning West of Shetland area.

This doesn’t suggest that there has been much of a problem, since 2006, in attracting women to work within the offshore sector of the energy industry. However in real terms, these figures show a rather different story.

A 46% rise in the number of females working in the Northern North Sea means, in reality, an increase from 181 females employed in 2006 to 263 in 2013. An increase of just 82 individuals in seven years. By comparison the survey stated there were 7,479 males working in the Northern North Sea at that time. Just 3% of the offshore workforce in the entire UK Continental Shelf was female, and 30% of them worked in catering teams.

More than half of employees (63%) and 71% of hiring managers who responded to the OilCareers.com and Air Energi survey believed that more women in the industry would provide access to a wider talent pool at all levels. However, not even half (44%) of hiring managers that knew their company had an active policy to encourage more women into oil and gas roles could say for sure whether or not this policy was effective. A startling statistic given that these are the very people who should be most aware of any such policy.

Respondents did agree, however, that the best way to mitigate the gender imbalance was to encourage young girls to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects at school. However, the organisation and implementation of industry outreach programmes to promote such STEM subjects requires significant investment and resources, both of which are now in short supply following the sharp fall in the oil price.

But the industry needs to seriously consider how it can promote itself in the right way to capture the attention of talented women and make them aware of the opportunities available.

And the emphasis must be that a STEM focussed education and/or career does not necessarily equal heavy manual work offshore in the North Sea. The industry in the UK alone, both offshore and onshore, offers much more than that.

Talk of encouraging anyone, male or female, to join the oil and gas workforce in the current climate may surprise some, but, as has been said many times, oil is a cyclical business. Oil prices will rise and, when they do, the industry will need people again. We will hear the usual complaints of a skills shortage, and when that time comes more women should be ready to answer the call.