This issue’s focus on women in business got me thinking about my own experience with this subject during a 37-year career in the oil and natural gas industry. To say things have changed during that time would be a great understatement, though work remains to be done.
I came into the industry in June 1979 as a revenue accountant for Coastal Oil and Gas Corporation in Houston. The industry at that time was generally still considered to be a big “boys club,” mainly because prior to the 1980s women had rarely chosen to major in fields such as petroleum engineering, geology and other technical fields that are important to the oil and gas business. Because of this reality, the male-to-female employee ratio in the oil and gas industry has been slower to even out than in other U.S. businesses.
Though there were female employees in Coastal’s revenue accounting group at that time — perhaps 25 percent of the workforce — all of the management roles were occupied by men, a situation that was pretty typical in the industry at that time. Other female employees during that time were typically seen in administrative, human resources and support roles.
This all began to change as the 1980s moved along and young women gained seniority in organizations and were being promoted into supervisory and management roles. Also in the early 1980s, engineering and other scientific disciplines began to see a significant uptick in the number of young women choosing to major in those subjects, and the industry was able to look forward to an influx of female engineers and geoscientists. The boys club was beginning to come to a gradual end.
Then the mid-’80s oil bust hit, as the oil price collapsed during 1984 from about $40 per barrel down to single digits. Oil companies began laying people off in droves, and these general layoffs continued as an overriding trend well into the 1990s. As a consequence of this downturn, enrollment in petroleum engineering and geology schools collapsed all over the country, and the anticipated evening out of the male-to-female ratio in the industry’s employee population was delayed.
It was during this time — from 1985 through about 2000 — that the industry’s infamous 15-year gap in employee age groups came about. The simple fact is that the industry did not do much hiring at all during this period of time. I like to tell the story that, on the day I went to work for Meridian Oil Company (later Burlington Resources) in October 1987, I was 31 years old, which was about the average age of an employee for that company. Fifteen years later, I was 46 years old and still about the average age of an employee at that company.
So, progress was slow, but it did keep coming. By 1987, I was reporting to my first female accounting manager at Meridian Oil in Fort Worth. As time rolled through the 1990s, we began to see more and more women promoted into these mid-level management roles, and then into senior management positions as we moved into the 21st century. The last two companies for which I worked full time both have very accomplished women serving as their respective general counsels.
Still, in large part because CEOs at oil and gas companies tend to come from the engineering, geoscience or operations departments of their organizations, the industry continues to lag well behind others in the number of women who have advanced to the highest leadership role. The boys club has diminished, but the highest levels of many organizations tend to be mostly male-dominated realms.
The same dynamic has held true at the industry’s trade associations, where we see an ever-increasing number of women in support roles, but the President/CEO positions still are dominated by men. Denise Bode had a very successful stint as President of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) in the mid-1990s, and Regina Hopper became the first full-time President of America’s Natural Gas Alliance in 2009. But these ladies were two exceptions, and today every one of the upstream oil and gas industry’s trade association is headed up by a man.
Upon leaving IPAA, Bode returned to her home state of Oklahoma, where she served for years on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in that state.
Here in Texas, we have seen five women become either appointed or elected to serve on the Texas Railroad Commission. Elizabeth Ames Coleman (formerly Jones) spent eight years in that role from 2005 through 2012 before leaving to make a run for the U.S. Senate. Christi Craddick, the current chair of the Railroad Commission, has been a commissioner since 2012. There obviously continue to be more men in these key regulatory positions than women (all three candidates for the seat on the RRC up for election this year were men), but the overall dynamic is that voters in Texas, Oklahoma and other states have no reservation about electing women to these high offices.
The same dynamic has taken place over the last 37 years where political offices in state legislatures and Congress are concerned. Throughout the 1990s, Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison assumed leadership positions on a variety of key energy-related issues, working cooperatively with congressional Democrats and the Clinton administration on matters impacting the oil and gas industry. Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu was for many years the most active supporter of the oil and gas industry among Democrats in the Senate.
The state of Wyoming has also produced a progression of women officeholders who have taken on leadership roles on energy in Washington. Reps. Barbara Cubin and Cynthia Lummis both fought hard for policies that promote a healthy oil and gas industry in the U.S. We can expect the same from the newest Congresswoman from Wyoming, Liz Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
In the Texas state legislature, Rep. Myra Crownover has assumed leadership roles on energy matters for eight terms in office. A steadily growing number of women in legislatures all over the country have made substantial impacts on the energy policies of their states.
The boys club that I came into when I entered the oil and gas industry in 1979 is slowly but surely going out of business over time. Women now play a very significant and growing role — both in the industry itself and in the realm of public policies that affect it. Work remains to be done, but you can see the progress being made with every passing year. And that’s a very good thing for all involved.
About the author: David Blackmon is Associate Editor for Oil and Gas for SHALE Magazine. He previously spent 37 years in the oil and natural gas industry in a variety of roles, the last 22 years engaged in public policy issues at the state and national levels. Contact David Blackmon at email@example.com.