Suddenly, a young woman stood up to talk.
She told the breakfast audience at last week’s IHS CERAWeek energy conference that they were losing money with old technology, that they should consider ways to use better data and cut down on costs.
Later, an executive who missed her introduction asked her if she was an intern or a marketing representative.
Allison Lami Sawyer’s title is CEO.
Of the roughly 30 CEOs who came to speak at the testosterone-heavy conference that closed Friday at the Hilton Americas-Houston downtown, only two were women.
It’s a fact that was hard to ignore and is representative of the energy industry’s largely male executive ranks.
“It’s just so strange,” said Sawyer, 28, CEO of leak-detection startup Rebellion Photonics. “You just never get over it.”
Many attendees are simply not used to seeing women as executives in the energy industry. And that’s because there are so few of them.
At a breakfast event hosted at The Grove restaurant in Discovery Green for 55 CEOs in attendance at the conference, just two were women, said Spectra Energy Partners CEO Julie Dill, who was there.
The gender disparity among conference attendees and speakers was the same, she said.
“It was really startling not to see more women on the panels and, quite frankly, when you look around the audience there are not a lot of women,” Dill said.
Wrong on her status
Dill, who is 53 and spent 17 years at Shell Oil Co. before joining Spectra, said she was mistaken at the conference for an employee of lower status, something that happens frequently in the industry.
“There have been occasions where they’ve believed that I was the secretary,” Dill said.
Sawyer said that some responsibility for the heavily male executive ranks falls on women, perhaps for not pursuing careers in the industry. And there aren’t too many examples to follow, she added.
“I think there’s a problem finding mentors,” Sawyer said.
But Dill described a lack of understanding at some companies of how women’s family obligations can be incorporated into a high-level career.
Energy companies say they are addressing the issue and have made an effort to hire more women. But the problem is a structure that may not be conducive to moving women into the executive ranks, Dill said, or to managing their return to the workplace after child-bearing years.
More diversity could generate innovation in the industry, said Kurt Glaubitz, a spokesman for Chevron Corp., which sponsored the IHS CERAWeek breakfast event where Sawyer spoke.
“The example that she provided is one that demonstrates how we can help to become more efficient in our current operations as we also look over the horizon at new technologies that will foster the fuel of tomorrow,” he said.
On the board: Women in top energy jobs cite technical, personal skills
Glaubitz said Sawyer’s selection for Energy Innovation Pioneers breakfast was encouraging and part of a trend of increased women’s employment in energy.
“It’s a testament to universities and higher education that they are better preparing women in order to take a place within management ranks of industry and we’re pleased to see that trend improving,” Glaubitz said.
‘It is intimidating’
For the women at the conference, that change seemed overdue.
“It is really a great conference, but it is intimidating,” Sawyer said.
The dearth of women in the halls and ballrooms led them to caucus in other places.
Women were in such a minority everywhere else that the restrooms – the only place where they were a distinct majority – became networking hot spots, Sawyer said.
Because those facilities were seldom crowded, the faces became familiar and the women exchanged contact information there.
“There’s definitely a sorority among the women here,” Sawyer said.
Still ahead: OTC
Watch for special Houston Chronicle and FuelFix.com coverage of the annual Offshore Technology Conference May 6-9 at Reliant Park. The 45-year-old annual gathering, which bills itself as the world’s foremost event focused on offshore energy, drew almost 90,000 industry executives, technical specialists and exhibitors last year.