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An Early Start in the Oil Industry

The New York Times

Published: May 23, 2009

I GREW up in a large family in a suburb of Kansas City, Kan. I’m one of six siblings, and we had more than 50 cousins in the community.

Royal Dutch Shell



Executive director, gas and power, Royal Dutch Shell, the Netherlands

AGE 58


RECENTLY READ “Factory Girls” by Leslie T. Chang

My grandparents, German immigrants, started a dairy. When I was young, my father and his brother ran the business, and my siblings and I helped out. I learned about business by working there. I did the payroll and worked as a receptionist and in the lab, testing milk.

The summer I was 16, I got bored and convinced my father to let me work at a gas station next to the dairy. I pumped gas for the delivery trucks and other customers. I tell people that it was my first job in the oil industry.

I was good in math and science and received a scholarship in chemical engineering, unsolicited, from the University of Kansas. After my first year, I realized I wasn’t crazy about the field. Then I took a course in geology and fell in love with the subject.

The challenge was to find a major that required geology and had a strong business dimension. I landed on petroleum engineering. I love the industry because it combines technology, economics and a political element. In many countries, the state owns the oil and gas resources and the government controls them.

There was only one other woman in my engineering classes. I hung out with the guys and joined them for poker nights. I had learned from growing up in a large family that you have to get along to survive, so being mostly with men was easy for me.

In 1980, when I graduated, there was peak demand for petroleum engineers. I had offers from almost every oil company in the country. I joined Shell as a reservoir engineer in the exploration and production area. One of the first requirements is to supervise a process called logging the well on a drilling rig. A crew drills a well and then lowers tools and takes measurements. The data provides information about the rock formations a mile or two below the surface.

I was one of the first women to supervise the logging jobs, and was sent to a remote area of Michigan. It was a bit of a shock for both me and the men. The work can take up to three days, and there were no separate accommodations. I slept in the same mud loggers’ trailer as the guys, in one of four bunks. I took the approach that I might not have been comfortable, but the men weren’t either. Today we have separate accommodations for women.

My family and I moved to the Netherlands in 1998 for my current position. Having a dual-career family and raising three kids has been one of the hardest things that my husband, Steve, and I have ever done.

Once Shell asked me to relocate to California from Houston, so Steve’s company found him a job there, too. Then his company asked him to return to Houston for a promotion, so I asked Shell to accommodate me. The company found a position for me, but a California manager said I needed to recognize this might be the end of my career. That was 20 years ago. Since then, I’ve held a number of executive positions, including C.E.O. of two Shell companies. I redeemed myself in their eyes.

I would advise women to keep their options open. Some women may think that they’ll never go back to work after having children, or that they’d never be able to relocate. I would tell them that you just don’t know what curveball life is going to throw you, and your circumstances may change, so don’t close any doors before you have to.

I visit the United States about six times a year. I have strong ties to the University of Kansas, and I remain a loyal Jayhawk fan even though I am living overseas. It’s not unusual for me to watch the team’s basketball games on my laptop, at all hours of the night, alone in hotel rooms in the Middle East or Asia.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.

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