Although historically dominated by men, the offshore industry is learning to integrate women into its roster.
A female engineer told me that on her first job on a platform in the North Sea she was greeted with flowers in her cabin and the crew’s language became somewhat muted.
This is the experience of some, and they find it quite amusing and to some extent, unexpected.
Unfortunately, the experience for many female engineers is not quite as positive.
The recruitment and retention crisis in the offshore industry first attracted my attention, when I was heading a project in 2001 to attract young people into engineering in the United Kingdom.
The industry had been gripped by the pressing problem of ever-falling recruitment numbers for some years. At that time, there were many who were predicting a significant drop in potential recruits over the ensuing five years during which a considerable number of well qualified and experienced men would retire.
To stave off this significant drop in numbers, many in the industry had been actively pushing various recruitment drives to recruit young men, ex-service personnel and more women. After these concerted efforts failed to produce more recruits, questions were raised as to why young women were not willing to work in the industry?
With this in mind, I decided to conduct a study on women engineers in the offshore industry. According to Society of Engineering Technologists (SET) figures from 1999 to 2003, between 10% and 13% of women attend first degree courses in an engineering related discipline (in the United Kingdom).
Why did these women choose to study engineering, and what had attracted them to the harshness of offshore life? The answers to these questions would influence recruitment efforts in the future.
Engineering is a highly technical profession and can provide substantial rewards for those who pursue it as a career. Is it possible that these new recruits viewed it as dirty, low paid and unimportant? It was possible that engineering as a profession in the United Kingdom had a marketing problem.
In the first year of my study I established contact with a pilot group of five female engineers. By the second year the group had expanded to 19 women. All of these women were employed and were situated in the United Kingdom Continental Shelf.
The group ranged in age from 19 to 49 years. All had different cultural backgrounds, ethnicities, years of experience and rank.
Most women in the group had a father who was also an engineer, which served to inspire them. From a very early age, many of these women actively participated in what are considered by many to be non-traditional gender related activities.
They went to construction sites, disassembled objects around the house (sometimes without success — much to their parents consternation), and renovated old cars.
An activity that may have seemed suited to young boys was considered a normal everyday thing to do for these young female engineers.
For many of these women their university experience prepared them for what they would eventually encounter in the North Sea.
Many attended classes where they were grossly outnumbered and often singled out by male lecturers who discouraged them from a career in the oil and gas industry. Although not every participant’s experience was identical, it seemed being outnumbered by men would be a constant theme in their careers.
Once their degrees were completed, these women landed their first jobs in the North Sea. The life change was extreme. Although it was different for everyone the first time, the harsh weather conditions of the North Sea were often coupled with the isolation that unfortunately comes from being identified as different by the employers themselves.
When companies write a diversity statement including gender as a category, women are singled out and are created as different. These are not women, these are not men; these are engineers working in the North Sea. They do not want preferential treatment, accommodation priorities, or special courtesies, they just want to do their jobs.
Many women noted the camaraderie of the teams they worked with.
However, this was further punctuated by some who persisted in commenting, “You only got this job because you’re a woman!” or “Women get it easy in this industry.”
Integrating into a society is difficult when the controlling majority has stigmatized you, even if it is well intentioned. Some women are provided with their own cabins, while the men are housed in the remaining accommodation space, or worse still, sleeping in a toilet because there is no space. This sort of logistical arrangement creates tensions and resentments.
Issues like the age demographic affected the younger women when their older male counterparts viewed them as daughters. Other women who have achieved senior positions have had to continually prove themselves as engineers only to be outstripped in promotions by their male colleagues leading to additional frustrations.
The crunch comes for many when they finally decide that their personal lives are a priority. After marriage, women face the difficult decision between developing a career and raising a family. Why should these women have this perception? Why can a male colleague continue to pursue his career offshore without feeling the incompatibility of family life and offshore work? Most women have to consider taking a desk job or an undesired onshore position due to personal circumstances.
My study culminated with a range of policy suggestions to the industry based on the research. Learning to be an engineer is difficult for both young men and women. Although it may be well intentioned, women should not be treated as a category of diversity in the offshore industry. Nor should they be allowed to become invisible within the system.
To successfully recruit younger audiences, single-sex teaching is needed to promote science and math based subjects. Segregated role modeling activities, such as networks of engineers and summer camps should be instituted, but this must be counteracted with full integration strategies that enable young engineers to work together cooperatively regardless of gender.
As a means of rapid integration, the study also calls for a critical mass approach to staffing offshore platforms. Rather than spreading these women around on differing installations, causing increased isolation and accommodation issues (one woman to a four person cabin), companies should employ four on one platform, and through this a critical mass evolves as an accepted culture.
Many of these suggestions are common policy in Norway; much can be learned about integration from the Norwegian sector of the North Sea.
Real changes are needed in culture of offshore operations. This study shows that intransigence and sexism still persist in the offshore industry. Changing this perception by finding effective ways of integrating women into the offshore culture will transform it into a more attractive prospect for future recruits.