Tuesday, February 1, 2011

25 Years Later: An interview with Mark Shrimpton

Mark Shrimpton.
Fueling the Future is not the first conference to focus exclusively on the employment of women in Newfoundland and Labrador’s oil and gas industry.

There was a similarly-themed conference, just over 25 years ago, called the International Conference on Women and Oil.

Not coincidentally, Mark Shrimpton had a key role in organizing both events, behind the scenes.

“I helped put together the original event, back in 1985, and I’ve been watching developments in gender diversity since then,” Shrimpton said, in an interview with this blog. “Last year, I set up a small committee to explore the idea of a new conference, and the Harris Centre at Memorial University was eager to participate as host organization. They were a great fit, due to Memorial’s extensive involvement in the 1985 conference.”

The 1985 conference was no small event, said Shrimpton, who is a Senior Associate at Stantec.

“There were about 200 registrants for that event, which is a substantial number. We had speakers from Norway, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. It was quite a large event, though it was more of an academic-driven exercise, as opposed to the latest conference, which is very much industry-driven.”

The Fueling the Future Blog spoke with Shrimpton, to get his perspective on what has changed since 1985, and what challenges remain.

Fueling the Future: How far have we come since 1985?

Mark Shrimpton: I think we’ve come a tremendous way, in terms of people being aware of this issue, and recognizing it as being important and seeking to do something about it. I think there has been a cultural change in the industry, where this is being taken seriously, rather than receiving lip service. The industry has expanded dramatically since 1985, when we were engaged only in exploration, and there is far greater awareness among employers about gender diversity. And we have made some important progress with operators, who generally are trying to be more proactive in hiring women. In fact, Husky Energy is the first operator to include a Diversity Plan as part of its overall operational plan. So, we’ve come a long way, but still have a lot of distance to cover yet.

Fueling the Future: Has there been an increase, in the numbers of women working in the industry?

Mark Shrimpton: Only a modest increase. There have been small gains in some key areas – for example, there are more women engineers now, compared to 1985 – but there is still enormous room for growth. In all skilled trades and technology occupations, women still comprise less than 10 percent of the workforce.

Fueling the Future: What are we striving for, then? Are there specific targets in mind?

Mark Shrimpton: No. At least, not hard numerical targets. What we want is an equal opportunity for women to participate in the industry. We want businesses and employers to remove barriers and create an environment that welcomes women, and to work hard at building gender diversity in the workplace. We want to encourage and support and facilitate women being in the industry. And we want women to have impressions of the industry that are based on reality, not old misperceptions. If a woman decides that she does or doesn’t want to enter the industry, that’s okay, as long as that decision is based on solid facts.

Fueling the Future: What are some of the obstacles keeping women out?

Mark Shrimpton: One is a lack of awareness for girls and women that there are opportunities for them in the industry, so they don’t get appropriate training. Many girls drop certain courses in junior high and high school, which are necessary foundations for skilled trades and occupations, because a non-traditional career choice was not even on their radar screen. There may be social pressures or expectations to pursue other career paths, from friends and family. There are misperceptions, for example, that oil and gas jobs require working on an offshore rig or platform when, in fact, the majority of oil industry jobs are onshore. There have been and maybe still are cases where the culture of the industry has not welcomed women and made them feel comfortable, so that some who entered the industry ended up leaving, because they did not feel welcome. There are still a few instances of men who don’t want women working with them, or for them. Some aren’t comfortable having women as their boss. But it must be emphasized that these sorts of individuals are becoming increasingly rare. There are other issues, no doubt, but those are some of the key ones.

Fueling the Future: How do we encourage women to enter the industry?

Mark Shrimpton: There has been a great deal of discussion about that, and action is being taken on a number of fronts. Industry operators and suppliers are required to develop diversity plans, which set out specific measures to make their corporate culture more welcoming to women. We need to encourage and celebrate the success of women who are already in the industry. At every opportunity, the industry needs to highlight women as role models, whether they appear in corporate advertising, brochures and on web sites. There is a great deal of outreach to schools, where awareness is raised about opportunities for women in the industry. Even  statements at the bottom of job advertisements, emphasizing that the company is striving for a diverse workplace, can make a difference. All communications have to make clear that the industry not just accepts women, but welcomes them and encourages them.

Fueling the Future: How important is education?

Mark Shrimpton: Tremendously important, of course, because math and science courses are critical to entering many skilled, technical occupations. You have to reach girls while they are still in school, through outreach programs, to make them aware of the many diverse opportunities in oil and gas, through outreach, and even career counselors. Again, young women have to make career choices based on genuine awareness, not on misperceptions.

Fueling the Future: Will there be recommendations coming out of this conference?

Mark Shrimpton: No list of formal recommendations will be generated by the conference. However, we do think that many managers and senior executive will come away from the conference with their own list of best practices, along with resources they can use to increase gender diversity. And we want people to come away with an even greater appreciation for and understanding of this issue, which will serve to increase momentum and carry things forward to a new level.

Fueling the Future: Assuming an employer is committed to gender diversity, how does it find women to hire?

Mark Shrimpton: First of all, it’s not just the job of the human resources lead. It’s much broader than that. What we are talking about here is an organizational culture. So it is everybody, from the most senior to most junior, who has a role to play to make sure women are comfortable in the workplace, and there is a respectful and welcoming work environment. I think it is a mistake to ascribe that responsibility to the HR lead. If you look, for instance, at the White Rose Diversity Plan, you will see these kinds of principles espoused over and over. Husky Energy also has regular diversity forums with their suppliers, and expects them to make diversity a priority as well. And it is working. If you look at White Rose, something like 25 percent of their engineers are women, which is very good, considering that 20 percent of engineering students are women. The theory is that, if you make a workplace that is welcoming and inviting and respectful toward women, gradually you will bring more women into the organization… and into the industry.

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