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Royal Dutch Shell Plc .com: Women Ascend at Oil Firms


Severe Shortage
Of Skilled Workers
Boosts Job Prospects
June 26, 2006

LONDON — Twenty years ago, it’s unlikely that Diana Leo, a middle-aged woman with business and engineering degrees, would have been found running an oil rig in the North Sea.

But in 2004, Ms. Leo, a native of Denmark’s Faroe Islands, became installations manager for the Nelson platform, a Royal Dutch Shell PLC facility 175 kilometers off the Scottish coast that produces 44,000 barrels of oil and 445,000 cubic meters of natural gas each day. She has overall responsibility for the platform, taking care of safety and making sure cost and production targets are met.

Though they remain a minority in the male-dominated oil industry, a severe shortage of skilled workers is boosting the career prospects of women like Ms. Leo.

As oil companies start to reinvest in exploration and production to replace dwindling reserves and satisfy soaring energy demand, they are trying to draw more women into the industry, including the core production roles that were once almost exclusively held by men. Increasing automation is also helping to lower the physical barriers that once held women back. Today, women are now found working on offshore rigs and have reached prominent management positions at companies like U.K. major BP PLC and its Anglo-Dutch rival Shell.

Ms. Leo says that on the platform where she works, trainee supervisors and facilities managers are women and the place gets regular visits from female well engineers.

A few decades ago, it was very different, says Linda Cook, a U.S. native who started her career in 1980 as a petroleum engineer for Shell Oil. “Often I was the only woman in a work group with no female role models to demonstrate that it was possible to advance through the organization,” says Ms. Cook. She was appointed executive director of Shell’s gas-and-power unit in 2004.

BP says that at the end of 2005, 17% of its top managers were female, and the proportion of women hired for senior positions rose from 6% in 2002 to 35% last year. One is Vivienne Cox, BP’s executive vice president for natural gas, power and renewable energy, who is an industry veteran who joined BP Chemicals in a commercial position in the 1980s.

Openness to equality is becoming less of a choice for oil companies and more of a necessity. After laying off thousands of workers when oil was stuck at $10 a barrel in the mid-1990s, companies like BP, Shell, Chevron Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp. are frantically trying to replace a lost generation of oil workers to help them compete in an environment where oil demand is outpacing supply.

“Around 50% of professional exploration and production staff are between 40 and 50 years old (and) up to half of the work force is likely to retire within the next 10 years,” said a 2005 study by U.S. management consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

The biggest solution to the skills shortage is to train and recruit local staff in producing countries, which lowers costs by reducing reliance on expensive expatriate workers. Indeed, this is often a prerequisite of oil-production agreements.

A technological transformation of the industry has also helped to pave the way for women, says Iain Percival, Shell’s former head geologist, who retired on Feb. 1.

“When I started in 1973 you needed a strong man on the rig floor to handle the brake lever when drilling,” he says. Now, to manage the same process, “you just sit on a comfortable chair in an air-conditioned environment and control the operation through a joystick,” he says.

The role of women is even significant in conservative regions like the Middle East that are key to the oil industry. The best embodiment of the trend is probably Sarah Akbar. Until last year she was manager for new business development at state-run Kuwait Foreign Petroleum Exploration Co., or Kufpec. She made her name fighting oil-well fires during the first Gulf War.

Now chief executive of independent oil company Kuwait Energy, Ms. Akbar notes that in the emirate “women represent 20% of the work force in the oil sector,” both in general activities such as finance and in technical disciplines.

Write to Benoit Faucon at [email protected]

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