'Unconventional' energy: rise of women in oil and gas industry

Nearly half of new oil and gas jobs in the US went to women in the first three months of this year, according to an analysis. Men still dominate the field, but new technologies are diversifying the workforce of the oil and gas industry.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File
A pumpjack drills for oil in the Monterey Shale formation in California. Forty-six percent of new oil and gas jobs in the first three months of 2013 were filled by women, according to a new analysis.

Women made up almost half of oil and gas industry hires in the first quarter of 2013, a new report shows.

Men still dominate the field – making up 82 percent of the oil and gas workforce, according to an analysis of government data by Rigzone, an oil and gas industry news and job recruitment website. But 46 percent of new jobs in the first three months of 2013 were filled by women. In the previous quarter, women filled 30 percent of new jobs.  

The demographics reflect a changing industry. The image of the macho roughneck toiling on isolated rigs persists, but computer-assisted exploration and advanced petroleum engineering have diversified the profile of oil and gas workers. 

"The industry itself is becoming more sophisticated, more technologically advanced," said Mary Usovicz, vice president of marketing and external affairs at OsComp, which develops compressed-natural-gas delivery technologies. 

"When women look into it and see the technology advances that have happened – and see the need to keep those advances going – I think it's interesting to them," Ms. Usovicz, who also serves on the board of New England Women in Energy and Environment, added in a telephone interview.

Oil and gas companies are also actively recruiting women. Oil giant BP has its own internal goals for gender representation among senior leadership. In 2000, 9 percent of its group leaders were women, according to the company's 2012 Sustainability Review. At the end of 2012, 17 percent were female. The company aims to raise that share to 25 percent by 2020. 

“Innovation is the key to success in any business," Cindy Bigner, senior director of global diversity and inclusion at Halliburton, said in an e-mailed statement. "Having women and diversity in the workplace adds a component of diverse thought and innovation that drives that competitive advantage.”

It's not just high-tech and managerial roles where women are gaining ground, according to Rigzone. Women are taking up posts in field service as well, said Paul Caplan, president of Rigzone.

"It speaks volumes about where the industry is headed, finally, in terms of finding opportunities for women," Mr. Caplan said in a phone interview.

It's also a reflection of the broader rise of women in the workforce over recent decades. The share of women in the labor force grew from 30 percent in 1950 to almost 47 percent in 2000. While that growth has slowed recently – partly due to the economic downturn – women are still expected to enter the workforce at a greater rate than men over the next decade. 

Challenges remain, of course. Eighty-four percent of women say men are paid more for similar work, according to an April 2013 Wall Street Journal poll. Full-time female workers earn 79 percent of the weekly pay that men bring home, according to the US Department of Labor

Usovicz is optimistic. She has worked almost 20 years in the industry and says it is ripe with opportunities for women. Part of that is because of the general increase of attention given to energy, she said, in light of breakthroughs in natural gas and renewables.

It's reflected in the reading material she uses to help people understand what she does for a living.

"It’s not the cover of American Gas Magazine I’m showing them, it’s the cover of Time," she said. "There’s a discussion about natural gas going on."  

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