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Despite Progress, A Subtle Case Of Sexism Still Lingers in the Energy Sector

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Women have made impressive gains in the energy sector over the last few decades. And yet, some still feel they are pushing back against the notion that women and oil don’t mix


Amanda Brauer was preparing for a routine meeting in a downtown Calgary boardroom when she struck up a conversation with a male peer whom she’d never met. Brauer, an engineer of nearly two years, wasn’t wearing her engineer’s ring—a key identifier for people in her profession. At some point in the conversation, after describing her position to him, he made a comment that she found peculiar: “You don’t look like an engineer,” he said.

To some, the comment might sound innocuous. Even Brauer* brushes it off as perhaps a clumsy choice of words. But the encounter is representative of the kind of subtle, often condescending treatment that women in the energy sector can face—that is, an attitude that is not necessarily overtly sexist, but rather offhandedly dismissive. As another woman put it, it’s like being treated as a “woman first, engineer second.”

The Canadian oil patch has come a long way in the last 30 years when it comes to its inclusiveness of women. Men no longer raise their eyebrows at the notion of female executives or board members, and the Calgary Petroleum Club has stopped being a stuffy establishment exclusively for old, white men (although it is still a bit stuffy). And yet, where overt sexism has mostly disappeared, it has sometimes just been replaced by something quieter.

For this story, Alberta Oil spoke with numerous women in the energy sector, both young and old, about their experiences in the industry. While their individual experiences varied significantly, an undeniable sentiment persists for each. Namely, that women still feel the need to conform to the unspoken rules and expectations of a world created by men—and that they need to be twice as smart, and twice as loud, to get noticed. Most problematic of all, they see these circumstances restricting their ability to fully realize their career ambitions. Despite appearing to make significant progress over the last few generations, the business of energy remains a man’s world. The lingering question is: Have things really improved as much as we like to think?

The most glaring problem women in the sector face is that there are so few of them compared to men. This is especially true in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Women accounted for an average of 17 percent of Canada’s newly licensed engineers at the end of 2014, according to Engineers Canada. In Alberta, the average was slightly higher at 18.3 percent. But that number falls away over time. Only about 12 percent of practicing, or experienced, engineers in Canada are women. That was in part what spurred Gail Powley, the vice-president of corporate development at Willowglen Systems, to dedicate her time to encouraging more women to become—and to remain—engineers.

Powley first entered university as a chemical engineering student in 1980, when the proportion of women in the profession was around 10 percent. Over two decades later, she was asked to help the University of Alberta with an initiative to raise the number of female engineering students. Powley then learned that enrolment numbers for female engineers had improved by a dismal 10 percent—a realization she describes as “quite a shock.” Powley joined the initiative, called Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science & Technology (WISEST), and went on to join a number of other groups focused on similar goals. “I actually had lost track of what the percentage of women were in university, because I just assumed it would get higher,” she says. “I was used to being the only woman in the boardroom.”

Later, as the founding chair of Women in APEGA, Powley oversaw the launch of its 30-by-30 program, which aims to raise the number of newly licensed female engineers in the province to 30 percent by 2030. Engineers Canada later adopted the initiative.

In broad terms, the energy sector is aware of its deficit of female engineers. But it is unclear why the problem persists (the proportion of women in primary industries, including upstream oil and gas development, was below 20 percent in 2011, according to Statistics Canada, while other professions in health, teaching or social sciences were well above 50 percent).

What is clear is that an underrepresentation of women can at times translate into a sense of isolation on the part of female professionals. “When you walk into a room and there are 25 or 30 people and you’re the only woman, you can feel as though everyone is looking at you, and you can feel a little different,” says Hilary Foulkes, the chair of Tudor Pickering Holt & Co. Securities Canada and a former COO at Penn West Exploration. “I walked into a room of 350 operators when I was an executive at Penn West to give a presentation once. I was the only woman in the room. Every once in a while it gets your attention. Not always, but every once in a while.”

Foulkes, who has over 36 years of experience in the energy sector, regularly addresses audiences about the need for higher female representation in the industry. For the most part, she says the story of female representation in the oil patch is a positive one. But there are lingering remnants of the old days. “When I was at Penn West as an executive, there were lots of times in meetings when people who were presenting never made eye contact with me,” she says. “They would make contact with all of the men in the room and not me.”

In general, the older generation of professionals tends to have a much more positive perspective of the male-dominated industry. Valerie Nontell, an engineer who runs her own company and has spent nearly 40 years on rig sites and in corporate Calgary, says she never saw her gender as a detriment. As a reservoir engineer for Chevron in 1976, she started looking after service rigs at a time when gruff men still drank rum and Coke on site. “The female has to work twice as hard as any guy to prove herself, to show that she can do as good as or better than the men,” she says. “Fortunately, that’s not very difficult.”

Not all women are hard-boiled tomboys like Nontell (in a fit of anger, she once shot her brother in the back with a BB gun). For women who are less accustomed to asserting themselves, navigating Calgary’s corporate structure can seem a little more daunting. “I have friends who tell me that their idea will be ignored during a meeting only to have that same idea repeated by a man [soon after],” says Melanie Popp, the president of 306 Energy Services, a consultancy firm.

Studies suggest those men would be wiser to hear the women out. A report by Catalyst, a non-profit firm based in New York, found that companies in the Fortune 500 with higher female representation generally achieved stronger financial results. The reasons why are straightforward. Women bring a perspective to the table, and therefore a potential solution, that a roomful of men might collectively overlook.

There are numerous organizations focused on improving female representation both in STEM and in the energy sector. Popp is the team leader for Women of SPE, which acts as a place where women can network and share ideas. There was a similar inspiration behind Young Women in Energy, a group that was launched in 2013 and has since grown to include more than 2,000 members and 50 volunteers. “It’s about building a network and having people to go to,” says Katie Smith, the executive director of YWE. “It is nice to be able to pick up the phone and know that you’re not alone, that someone has already done this before.” The group hosts quarterly panelist discussions, an annual awards gala and a golf league, among many other events.

Rather than viewing themselves as a “movement,” the groups instead strive simply to create a clearer path forward for women who want to make their mark on the industry. “There’s an adage that says if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” says Foulkes. “For organizations that have no women in leadership roles, or no women on boards, it’s very hard for women to see where they can go in an organization. It’s not a direct correlation; it’s very soft. But it’s there.” In her own experience, Foulkes says she always felt respected and accepted by her colleagues, particularly once she reached the board level. For young women entering the industry, it is those early years that are most difficult. But she ultimately believes the qualified will rise. “We often think of leadership as something you can learn or something that comes from a book, but there’s a lot of personal integrity associated with leadership—and that goes for men and for women. I don’t think there’s a big distinction. We as a civilization are starting to tire of any leader who is bombastic. We’re starting to realize that leadership is courage, leadership is vision, leadership is integrity, leadership is authenticity. And that transcends any gender.”

*name changed to protect privacy

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