Sixel: ‘Next level’ for women in energy

Like many energy companies, Halliburton wants to attract more women scientists and engineers. So it conducted research that included asking its existing employees for advice.

Putting locks on bathroom doors in the oil field would help, some of the women said. So would making overalls in women’s sizes.

Those fixes, especially compared to coming up with ways to get younger women interested in opportunities in the traditionally “good old boy” field, sounded easy enough. But it didn’t turn out to be.

“You would have thought it was like asking coverall makers to move a mountain,” said Cindy Bigner, global director of diversity and inclusion at Halliburton.

But with the locks in place and the overalls a little more stylish – if that’s really possible – Bigner is on to bigger things. She, along with a representative from BP, discussed some of their difficulties, and achievements, during a energy recruiting seminar earlier this month at the University of Houston’s Bauer College of Business.

When Bigner was asked a year ago to take charge of diversity – a first for the oil and gas services giant – she said she asked company executives if they were really serious. The response convinced her that Halliburton wants to be a leader.

Initially, Bigner thought she’d be playing catch-up. Then she realized how much other energy companies are struggling with the same issues.

“We’re stuck,” she said. “We don’t know how to get to the next level. It’s a huge cultural change for our industry.”

‘In the elements’

One of the challenges Halliburton and others in the oil field services industry face is the stigma of working in a less-than-glamorous environment.

“It’s not pretty work,” she said. “To really learn our business, you have to out there in the elements. You have to be outside.”

BP has undertaken a “huge initiative” as it tries to recruit more women into science and technology and engineering and move them through the pipeline, said Sandra Becket, recruiting strategy manager.

Middle layer

The biggest problem is the middle layer, comprising women with five to 15 years of experience, Becket said. The company wants to see more of them move to the higher levels.

One way BP has found to bring in more women has been to “volunteer” some employees to add recruiting to their list of responsibilities, Becket said.

While women make up 21 to 25 percent of university graduates in science, technology, engineering and math, only about 13 percent of that already small pool is interested in the service end of the business, Bigner estimated.

But the demand for technological advances is so great that the industry has to do more to attract more woman applicants, she said. Halliburton, which has two women on its 11-member board of directors, is focused on teacher education to spur excitement about the industry and expanding its pipeline of women who can move up the ranks and, eventually, into the executive suite.

It’s also spending more time at universities, especially at engineering and other clubs, to encourage graduates to consider jobs in energy.

When women are considering a job, especially in a male-dominated industry, they want to see other women who have gotten ahead. But Halliburton was relying on its familiar group of recruiters, mostly older men, to talk up the opportunities.

The company added new team members – including a number of women – to take on some of the recruiting as well as filling public speaking requests as the “face of Halliburton,” and they’ve done really well, Bigner said. They just hadn’t been asked before.

One of the biggest and most significant improvements has been to put women together on field teams, she said. That way they don’t feel as alone on the work crews, usually in remote locations, that are typically dominated by men.

And, of course, they’ve got those better-fitting overalls.

lm.sixel@chron.com