A veteran of the oil and gas industry, Michele McNichol is used to being an oddity.
When the now CEO of Wood Group Mustang majored in chemical engineering at Texas A&M University in the mid-1980s, she was one of only a handful of women in her degree program.
At her first job out of college working as an engineer for Amoco, she was the sole female technical employees at the company’s office in rural Wyoming.
When she was selected in February to become the CEO of Wood Group Mustang, a Houston-based company that provides project management, engineering, procurement and construction management services for the oil and gas industry, she joined a select circle of top female leaders in a male-dominated industry.
The energy industry has made tremendous strides since McNichols college days, with her all-male professors and so few female graduates, she could count them on one hand. More women are earning degrees in engineering and landing coveted technical jobs across the industry. But as the collapse in oil prices forces companies to lay off thousands of workers and curtail recruitment efforts, stiffening the competition for oil and gas jobs, McNichols worries that women are less likely to survive the downturn than their male counterparts.
“I think women sometimes sell themselves a little short,” she said. “They can endure these downturns just as well as the guys.”
McNichols, who is scheduled to give a keynote speech kicking off the Women’s Global Leadership Conference in Energy on Tuesday in Houston, recently spoke with Fuel Fix about the evolving role of women in energy and how the global crude slump is affecting longtime efforts to recruit more women.
Excerpts, condensed and edited for clarity:
Q: How has the environment changed for women in oil and gas since you attended college?
A: Back then, it was different. In my graduating class in the spring of 1986, there were 66 chemical engineering majors and five women. It was challenging because there weren’t a lot of role models or mentorships. I didn’t have a single female professor on the technical side. After graduating, it felt very much the same as college. I had to figure out how to work with the guys and work in that environment. But that’s evolved over time. When you look at where we’re at today, our new up and coming engineers, we’re pretty balanced. It’s evolved over the last 30 years, that’s for sure.
Q: What are some successful strategies to convince more women to seek opportunities in an industry long dominated by men?
A: I think it’s about us being very clear that girls can do this. They’re smart enough. You can have a career and you can have a family. There’s enough of us out there as role models that they can believe it is all possible.
Q: That women can “have it all” — successfully and happily balance both career and family — has been the subject of great debate. Do you believe that’s possible?
A: This is my favorite question. The answer is yes, but “have it all” comes with a definition. I was having a conversation with an engineer at BP who has a 1-year-old and she’s struggling with this balance. Stop thinking about “balance” and think “blended.” It’s not a balanced life. It’s a blended life. You have to put it into perspective. You’re not going to be at ever soccer game or every school picture day, but you pick the things that are important and fit things in. And sometimes you have to change expectations at work. I used to work 16 hours a day. I loved working and so people got used to that. Then you get married and you have kids and that expectation has to move. That doesn’t make you any less of a good employee. But you have to change people’s expectations. The balance thing? I don’t believe in it. It’s a mythological thing we all pursue and it doesn’t really exist. My Outlook calendar has everything from Girl Scouts’ meetings to volleyball games to board meetings. It’s all one life and I blend it all together. It’s possible to have it all, if you’re clear what “all” is, and what really matters.
Q: How do you, as a female CEO, ensure that your female employees can balance family and work obligations and create that blended life you talked about?
A: I’m not singling out females because I think having a blended life is true regardless of gender. It’s about managing our expectations, taking out non-value-added work. Taking out the bureaucracy. Getting our work done in an efficient amount of time so we don’t have to work 16 hours a day. And they can go have family time or do philanthropy or whatever they choose to spend their extra time on that’s equally important and that makes them better employees.
Q: Do you worry that women are more vulnerable to job cuts during this downturn because they may be perceived as less productive if they need to tend to family obligations?
A: I don’t think the downturn is going to have any more of an adverse effect on women than it does on men. It’s who has the right skill sets for the work available, and that’s gender-less. If I did have a gender-specific concern, it would be about women not enduring through this downturn. Saying, “This is too hard” and leaving the industry for that reason as opposed to letting their skills dictate their career. One of the characteristics I use to describe myself is “unstoppable.” You face these barriers and things come up. You have a downturn and you ask yourself: “Am I spending the right amount of time on family versus work? Is it worth it?” It’s about powering through that doubt and sticking with it so you can get to the next side of the downturn and keep building on your career. I think you see more women than men, when they get to those decision points, they let doubt creep in too much. And that’s where they pull themselves out of line.
Q: Despite heavy recruitment efforts, the industry remains heavily male-dominated. What needs to be done to change that?
A: This starts all the way back at the junior high level. We’ve got to be encouraging girls to be proud of and to pursue technical careers in college. This is a great profession. Oil and gas has its ups and downs. But so do other industries. This industry has offered me opportunities to see the world and work with amazing people and do world-class projects. It’s an exciting industry and one that people should be proud to join.