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  • Writer's pictureaxisaberdeen

Gender balance and the future of oil and gas: wishing won’t make it so.

Futurism is all the rage, and right there in the eye of the storm is gender. Speculative fiction where women are uber-oppressed (The Testaments – Margaret Atwood) or hyper-enfranchised (The Power – Naomi Alderman) is flying off the shelves. Meanwhile home AIs like Siri and Alexa are simultaneously hailed both as trés moderne and terribly misogynistic. Our own industry is no exception. Now more than ever, the oil and gas sector is gripped by the question “what does our future look like?” And increasingly we’re looking to women for the answers. In June the OGUK conference put transitions in energy, business and people centre stage (the AXIS Network was there) and every single keynote at last month’s Offshore Europe featured women speaking on future-focused topics. But what of gender balance in our industry’s future? Will trends like digitalization fill our workplaces with women, and narrow gender pay gaps to boot? Will the forces at work in wider society make our gender parity dreams come true, without us needing to lift a finger? Let’s look at the evidence.


At the AXIS Network event in June, Paul de Leeuw and SuMin Kim of Robert Gordon University (RGU)’s Energy Transition Institute (ETI) shared their 2019 analysis of the UK oil and gas workforce, viewed through the prism of gender. About 1 in 4 people currently employed in the UKCS are women, but they aren’t evenly distributed across occupations. The size of each box on Figure 1 reflects the total number of people employed in a job family, and the colour the proportion of women in that field. At present, most of the women currently employed in our industry are in non-STEM functions like HR and admin/support, with significant proportions of finance, logistics, supply chain and HSE staff also being women. There are currently only two technical job families (subsurface and data management) with more than 25% women.

Compare this with a figure from the OPITO/ RGU 2018 study of UKCS workforce dynamics, which highlighted the possible impact of technology on each job family in our industry in the next 15 years (Figure 2). It is striking that female-rich non-technical job families are the areas most at risk of activity displacement (admin/support, finance, logistics, supply chain). By contrast STEM functions are all low risk, with the notable exception of subsurface and data management – the only functions that have a significant proportion of women. This isn’t really surprising, and our industry isn’t a special case. As the Office for National Statistics concluded in a 2019 publication “70.2% of the roles at high risk of automation are currently held by women”.

Of course, as well as eliminating old roles, technologies like machine learning, digitalization and automation have the potential to create new ones. As OGUK’s recent Workforce Report puts it “New skills and roles … could prove to be a positive influence on gender balance in the industry, particularly given they are in relatively new disciplines with higher numbers of women than traditional STEM areas.” The difficulty, though, is that such skills are in demand by a wide range of employers: oil and gas isn’t the only game in town. What’s going to make a female machine learning specialist or data analyst choose oil and gas rather than a sector already perceived to be more welcoming to women? Another figure shared by RGU – Energy Transition Institute at June’s AXIS Network event (Figure 3) shows, with the exception of risk management skills, men and women are in close agreement when asked which skills require more focus on upskilling by 2025. But do they also agree on how that upskilling will be achieved? Surveys like the Global Energy Talent Index make it abundantly clear (Figure 4) that while women feel that developing female talent is a key lever in upskilling our industry for the future, men do not agree. And will Artificial Intelligence help us remove gender bias during the recruitment process, or entrench our biases in an automated system? Catalyst says it could go either way.


Aside from purely technological advances, a plethora of other trends could swing the gender balance in energy. The UK continental shelf is a maturing basin, and decommissioning will surely reduce the numbers of operations and technicians (overwhelmingly male, at present). That said, the drop in exploration activity as the basin matures will also reduce the numbers working in exploration geoscience, which at present has a relatively high proportion of women. The maturing basin argument could tip the balance either way. And what of that other signifier of maturity: the great crew change? While there is significant focus on who we bring into our industry, the demographics already hard-baked into our companies could arguably drive bigger swings in our gender balance. The population likely to retire from oil and gas in the next five years contains a disproportionate number of men (Figure 5). There is also a clear trend towards transfer of assets from major international and national oil companies to independents and private-equity backed firms. Statistics collected by the UK government show that the majors generally have the highest percentage of women and lowest gender pay gaps among oil and gas operators, with smaller independents typically performing less well at present. This trend away from IOCs might remove a well-known pinch point: the “classic leadership trajectory” requiring international moves in your early 30s, when many couples are also starting a family. Consequently, increased geographical stability might improve retention rates for women in our industry. How exactly asset transfers to independents shifts the gender scales will very much depend on whether these new players adopt the female-friendly policies and work cultures developed by the majors.

There are also wider societal trends at play that could affect gender balance in oil and gas. For instance, the make-up of the graduate talent pool is changing, and changing fast. Many folks who themselves attended university in the 80s and 90s are surprised to learn >50% of students in UK universities today are women. Moreover, the proportion of women in the UK graduate pool is increasing year on year, including in STEM subjects. Regrettably though, there is anecdotal evidence that in response to #MeToo, some firms are choosing not to hire women into male-dominated fields (like ours). And what else is changing? Young men. Although gender bias has not been eliminated in the under 35s, increasingly, young men are rejecting time-macho working patterns, are part of dual career couples and wish to be involved fathers. To attract and retain millennial men, some oil and gas companies are offering paradigm-shifting paternity and shared parental leave policies that leave Spotify and Google dad-deals in the dust. At Offshore Europe 2019, we heard young men themselves tell us how much they value modern work modes like compressed weeks, part-time working, flexible hours and offsite-working option. Some oil and gas companies are leading the way on this, and picking up awards as a result. Perhaps in the future, starting a family might have no more effect on a woman’s career than a man’s….

Figure 5: Figure 5. Demographics from Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain Survey 2018.

If you’re feeling dizzy from gazing so long into the future, let me put you on a firmer footing with a little wander back along memory lane. In 1958, Phil Everly had a dream about a woman magically appearing and solving all his woes – the song this dream inspired? “But wishing won’t make it so.” To be frank, I have the very same thought whenever I see a target in a gender pay gap report without an actionable plan. Or whenever I see hand wringing CEOs wishing more girls would choose STEM subjects at school. It’s the soundtrack in my head when I hear earnest HR directors wishing more women would pluck up the courage to ask for promotions just like their male peers. But as melancholy Phil himself sang “We’ve proved it long ago – wishing won’t make it so”. Technology trends in oil & gas seem to have as much potential to reduce female participation in our workforce as they do to increase it. Other trends in our industry and wider society could also tip the balance either way. So if we really want more women in oil and gas, surely better to stop hoping and wishing and start working to make our cultures more appealing to women. Unlike most industries, we’ve a proud record of changing our culture to achieve meaningful objectives: just think back to 1980s attitudes, values and beliefs around safety. External observers also believe in our potential to do better: “Greater gender balance is a worthwhile and attainable goal for the industry, and one that it has the means to achieve.” We’ve radically changed our culture before, and we can and must do it again. It’s high time we abandon the wishbone and instead show more backbone – our future depends on it.

Katy Hardacre



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