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Climbing the oil and gas ladder: four lessons from women in exploration leadership

Inspiring women from the world of upstream exploration provide actionable advice for any career stage

1 minute read

The number of women leading oil and gas exploration divisions is on the rise. Through their drive and exceptional talent these women are conquering structural obstacles and systemic bias. Along the way, they’ve developed tools to mitigate challenges to their advancement.

In a series of one-to-one interviews, eight of these inspiring women generously shared these tools, providing actionable advice for women at any stage of their career. In this article I’ll share a summary of the four broad themes that emerged.

Insight direct from the women steering the exploration ship

Study after study has shown that gender (along with ethnic and cultural) diversity at the top boosts business performance. And yet women face greater structural obstacles than men in oil and gas: the proportion of women at senior levels is reportedly half that at mid-level. So, how did the women who did get to the top of their discipline overcome these obstacles? And what can be learned from their experience?

Wood Mackenzie’s annual exploration summit presented an opportunity to find out. The summit gathers the heads of exploration from key companies around the world – and I’ve been delighted to see the number of women attending grow in recent years.

I interviewed eight female exploration leaders who were invited to last year’s event:

  • Maria Henry, Senior Vice President, Geology, Antero
  • Tracey Henderson, Senior Vice President, Exploration, Apache
  • Sonia Scarselli, Vice President, Exploration and Appraisal, BHP
  • Elizabeth Schwarze, Vice President, Exploration, Chevron
  • Melissa Coleman, Vice President, Exploration & New Ventures, ConocoPhillips
  • Sophie Hildebrand, Senior Vice President, International Subsurface, Equinor
  • Emeliana Rice-Oxley, Vice President, Exploration, PETRONAS
  • Amalia Olivera-Riley, Head of Exploration, Tullow Oil

What propelled these women to the top of their discipline? Interestingly, none started out aiming to become an executive, though their talent was identified early on. Their careers have taken many unique twists and turns – but there are some common lessons.

1. Everyone needs helping hands: mentors and networks matter

The accomplishments of these leaders are hard-won. And yet, they didn’t achieve their success in isolation. Mentors, coaches and sponsors played key roles – often in unexpected ways.

In a recent BCG study, a third of women working in oil and gas stated a lack of mentoring and sponsorship were obstacles to advancement. Far fewer men made this statement. Our interviewees identified a few ways to navigate this challenge:

  • Be enthusiastic and curious from day one. Ask questions, show what you know and learn as much as you can from others. This will attract mentors as teachers for technical skills, building your self-confidence.
  • Build a track record of delivering high-quality work. Be courageous in speaking up and speaking out to get noticed and show how you think. You’ll attract mentors who will advocate for you as sponsors.
  • As you progress, be more deliberate about mentorship. Identify and approach potential mentors with a clear idea of what you want to get out of the relationship.
  • Build a network as you move between roles, of superiors and peers. Contacts might leave your organisation but their moves can create unexpected opportunities for you longer-term.
  • Consider professional executive coaches. My interviewees commented on how beneficial a coach would have been much earlier in their career.

2. Be self-aware and others-aware: observe, reflect, integrate

Women are less likely to self-promote. How to get around the societal conditioning that creates this behaviour? Become intentional about observing others and increase your self-awareness.

  • Observe the leaders you admire. Identify the behaviours and actions that make them successful – notice also what doesn’t work. Liz Schwarze advised “trying on” different personas to see how they fit. If they don’t feel authentic to you, try something else until you find your own style.
  • Reflect on your own strengths. Asking for feedback is critical, so you can identify the strengths you can leverage. You’ll also identify growth areas, which might lead to seeking out a new role.
  • Integrate what you discover about yourself into your journey. Sophie Hildebrand and Amalia Olivera-Riley talked about being problem-solvers. Having established this capability as their trademark, they took on a series of undefined or unstructured projects mid-career, which provided a wealth of soft skills and experience they later leveraged.

3. Step outside your comfort zone: seek out hidden strengths

The ‘glass ceiling’ that women often face can result from being a knowledge-based leader, rather than a ‘spanning’ leader who can mobilise others’ knowledge. Moving outside your comfort zone can help.

The trajectories of all the leaders took unexpected turns – by chance, circumstance or design. All commented that they learned and grew, even in roles they didn’t enjoy. There are many different routes to the top, so focus on the portable skills you develop in those situations.

A common thread was the broadening of skills to build understanding of how the business runs and decisions are made. This included portfolio and planning, HR, organisational design and capability, finance and project management.

Most of the leaders started out in Majors, where there’s a wide variety of roles and locations and frequent job churn. Having impressed superiors early on, many were challenged to step into roles that made them uncomfortable. But as Melissa Coleman pointed out, others often see something in you that you don’t. Take the opportunity to explore hidden strengths and capabilities. Sonia Scarselli, for example, moved to run a non-operated production asset. She had to quickly adapt and learn new skills, demonstrating flexibility and resilience.

Pick up messages from those in authority who can see your potential. Before reaching executive level, Tracey Henderson remarked to a Board member that she wanted "more of a say in what we are doing”. His response? “I would urge you to aim higher.” She never forgot those words.

Maria Henry took the ultimate step of quitting her corporate job and setting up her own geoscience company. She later went back to education to learn about emerging shale plays so that she could join a corporation as a team leader in that space. She leveraged her network, technical skills and, crucially, the experience of investing in international onshore projects.

4. Compromise in family situations is inevitable

Dual careers, trailing spouses, family obligations, childcare: all are fraught with challenges. Choosing the right path can be daunting and often involves some form of compromise – which doesn’t have to kill your career. But you (and any life partner) may well need to be pragmatic, adaptable and creative. Within your organisation, don’t accept a situation just because you don’t see your ideal. Ask for what you want and need, or seek it elsewhere.

Maria originally left her corporate role due to a lack of flexible working options after having her second child. Building her own company, she was able to sharpen her technical skills, develop new skills and better manage work/life integration. Emeliana Rice-Oxley negotiated to become one of Shell’s first remote workers some 20 years ago, splitting time between home and office. She achieved the flexibility her family needed – and Shell retained a valuable leader.

How we can all change for the better

The women I interviewed reached the top echelon of their discipline despite systemic, cultural bias. They harnessed their talent, worked hard and were guided by those who believed in that talent.

Combating bias will level the playing field – not only for women but for all under-represented groups. The benefits of diversity in leadership are clear, but getting there is taking time. While culture and policies can be slow to change, everyday actions by individuals can make a real difference.

So, don’t wait to have a title to wield influence, leadership and authority – empower yourself to make change. To build the next generation of women leaders, find an ally, be an ally, take action.

I'd like to thank the women who volunteered their time to share their personal stories.

Read more of the latest thinking from Wood Mackenzie's women in energy and natural resources.