Women bring diversity and expertise to Canada’s oil and gas sector

By Lisa Fattori

A WinSETT workshop that is geared towards helping women advance in resource/tech industries.

A WinSETT workshop that is geared towards helping women advance in resource/tech industries.

As with most resource-based industries, women are under-represented in Canada’s oil and gas sector. With the boomer generation approaching retirement, employers will need to broaden their pool of workers, and attract and retain more female employees. Flexibility, opportunities for advancement and a more inclusive culture, throughout all levels of an organization, are the key issues that women face in considering a career in oil and gas—a career that offers over 120 types of occupations and lucrative earnings in an exciting and fast-paced industry.

A 2013 national outlook report by the Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MiHR) reveals that there is a lot of overlap between the mining sector and surface mining operations in the oilsands. According to the report, women make up 48 per cent of Canada’s overall labour force. In mining, women make up 16 per cent of the labour force. Another 2013 MiHR publication, Mining In Canada’s Oilsands: Labour Market Trends and Human Resources Challenges, reports that in oilsands mining, about 15 per cent of workers are women. The majority of female oilsands workers are heavy-equipment operators, while heavy-duty equipment mechanics is the occupation that shows the smallest amount of participation by women.

“The takeaway here is that when compared to the overall labour force, Canadian resource sectors are underperforming in regards to the participation and engagement of women,” says Courtnay Hughes, project manager at MiHR. “There are a lot of women in administration and corporate-services positions, whereas you see mostly men in management and leadership roles. Given there is a significant labour shortage in mining, we need to grow and diversify the labour pool. We need to attract the best and the brightest to remain competitive, and that includes women, as well as immigrants and Aboriginal peoples.”

According to the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada, hiring activity for the oil and gas industry’s direct workforce to 2022 ranges between 125,000 and 150,000 people. Engineers, geoscience professionals, tradespeople, operators and field workers are all in demand and are positions that can easily be filled by women. Studies show that while women may gravitate to the oil and gas sector early in their careers, it is more difficult to retain these women when they hit the 30 to 34 age group. These women are starting families and raising young children, and have domestic demands that a fly-in, fly-out field position may not accommodate. Infrastructure to support family life, including on-site daycare services, recreation centres and medical facilities, as well as more flexible work schedules are what women cite as important issues.

“Companies look for linear progression; if a woman takes time off to have a child, her career path is interrupted,” says Dr. Eve Sprunt, earth scientist, petroleum engineer and consultant based in California. “It’s been a relatively short time of all human history that we’ve had rigid work hours. With advanced technologies, we again have a 24/7 world.  The oil and gas business is an international industry where you can have a conference call at any time of the day or night. With today’s computing power, telecommuting and even control rooms for drilling rigs operated remotely, many oil industry roles don’t require the physical presence of a young mother. There is the opportunity for a lot more flexibility.”

8-2 Savanna Energy rig crew

A rig crew at Savanna Energy Services.

Challenges to career advancement have also been identified as an obstacle for women, particularly in technical positions, skilled trades and senior leadership roles. Women can also feel excluded in a male-dominated environment, finding themselves not invited to networking and team-building opportunities, such as company fishing trips or golf tournaments. While such oversights may be unintentional, exclusion affects the working culture and minimizes a woman’s contribution to the organization.

Mentoring programs and workshops, such as those provided by The Canadian Centre for Women in Science, Engineering Trades and Technology (WinSETT Centre), help women to navigate challenges and advance their careers. In February, Status of Women Canada announced support for a project to enhance women’s participation and advancement in Alberta’s oil and gas sector. WinSETT is receiving $248,400 for a 36-month project that will help develop more inclusive and supportive employment environments.

“This project builds on the work we’ve been doing and gives us the opportunity to focus on one sector,” says Carolyn Emerson, project consultant for WinSETT Centre. “We’ve delivered 57 workshops in 12 cities in seven provinces across Canada. We’ll continue to work with women and employers to identify what the needs and opportunities are, and we’ll partner in developing some new tools and initiatives such as additional workshops to address those needs. We’ll look at the current effective policies of companies, in recruitment and retainment, to come up with an action plan that can be applied across the country and in other sectors.”

Mentoring is an effective way to offer support and guide women as to how they can advance their careers. More influential, however, is the sponsorship of a woman, by someone in a senior position, who can recommend a person for promotion.

“In large organizations, small groups of people make decisions about promotions to highly desirable positions,” Sprunt says. “A sponsor is someone in a position of power who will speak up and champion a woman’s cause. It’s an informal thing, where the sponsor thinks a junior person has talent for the position and puts in a good word for her.”

For the last four years, Savanna Energy Services has been actively recruiting female crew members for their rigs, with between 10 to 16 women working in the field. In fact, the company’s first female rig worker is currently on maternity leave and, while pregnant, had her position changed to driving a crew truck, which wasn’t as physically strenuous as rig work. This flexibility is indicative of how companies can accommodate women so that their careers are not disrupted or replaced altogether.

“When you’ve invested in a person, you don’t want to throw that away,” says Laura Koronko, diversity coordinator for Savanna Energy Services. “Really, it’s no different than hiring men. We try to make it a good fit, whether it’s a woman, an aboriginal person or an immigrant. Not only do we want to broaden our employee pool, we also want to be seen as a leader in the industry and a company that is progressive.”

Equipment changes, such as criss-cross harnesses, have been developed for women, and today’s automated systems make the work less physically demanding. The pay scale for oil rig work ranges from $20 per hour to $44.80 per hour, taking approximately seven years to work through every position to reach rig manager.

“We have some women moving into Derrickhand right now,” Koronko says. “They worked to this level in just four years, so it’s very achievable.”

Studies have shown that organizations with women employees outperform, and have stronger relationships with customers and the communities where they operate. The challenge is to ensure that an inclusive workplace culture extends from the corporate head office to all locations and levels of an organization, and that on-site contractors and consultants are on board with company policy.

“By engaging a more diverse workforce, companies make better decisions and are more responsive to customers and communities,” Hughes says. “This extends beyond the bottom line to create an environment of respect and engagement among all stakeholders.”

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