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A Woman’s Place is in the Driver’s Seat

The resource development industry embraces positive change

Aerial view of the Point Thomson Project Central Pad.

Aerial view of the Point Thomson Project Central Pad.

Photo courtesy of ExxonMobil

When we think of the women who have made their marks as leaders throughout history, many would call to mind fierce warriors like Boudica, said to be so tough that even the Romans didn’t want to mess with her; Joan of Arc, who was ‘born to’ be martyred; or women like Rosa Parks, whose quiet rebellion in being fed up with an everyday injustice earned a reaction that was anything but quiet.

However, the women leaders of today find their leaderships positions quite naturally and with much less fanfare than did their predecessors, and it is becoming increasingly less unusual to find them not only in the boardroom, but at the head of the table at the biggest resource development companies in the world.

Janet Weiss, president of BP Alaska, is one such leader, and feels excited and ready to lead Alaska’s resource development industry through its current transition.

“Being the first woman to serve as regional president for BP here in Alaska is a great opportunity,” she says. “It is right up there with being the first long-time Alaskan to become BP’s Alaska regional president,” which is another feather in her cap, neither accomplishment of which she could have anticipated when she was getting her Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering at Oklahoma State University approximately three decades ago.

“When my husband and I arrived here twenty-eight years ago I never imagined that our path would lead me to such an exciting and challenging role,” Weiss says. “I’m both humbled and inspired by the challenge of ensuring BP does our part to build a strong and sustainable future for Alaska following the Alaska Oil Tax Reform law.”

Weiss’s rather humble industry beginnings tell a similar story to many industry employees, which lends to her credibility as the leader who joins the troops in the vanguard rather than calling out commands from the tower.

“To help pay for college, I worked in a co-op program where a student alternates semesters going to school and working in industry,” she says. “It is like a summer internship on steroids. I spent several semesters with ARCO, a company that was starting up fields on the North Slope of Alaska. I was swept up by the possibility of moving to Alaska.”

“I started on the North Slope as a process engineer then moved into reservoir engineering,” she continues. “I gravitated to work assignments that were all about enabling new opportunities and clarifying strategic options, then defining direction.”

Like many good leaders, Weiss spends less time focusing on herself and her personal story, demonstrating that her presence here is primarily because of her enthusiasm for the industry and the quality of her work.

“Our leaders and employees share the same values: safety, respect, excellence, courage, and a commitment to one team. Leaders need to encourage these values in the way they lead and nurture the right culture for teams, which enables a better contribution. It’s clear that my first job objective as BP Alaska president is to deliver safe and reliable operations.”

Gina Dickerson, Point Thomson project manager for ExxonMobil, is a leader whose roots in industry started in her childhood.

“My father was an engineer with Amoco Oil and my mother was a substitute teacher,” Dickerson says. “They both encouraged me to take full advantage of my education from an early age. My father was one of nine children and the only one to graduate in engineering. I enjoyed learning about what he did as an engineer and he was a significant influence on my educational choices.”

“My math and science teachers also inspired my choices and they encouraged me to join my high school engineering team,” Dickerson adds. “I particularly enjoyed chemistry labs. I also knew I liked math, science, and solving problems, but really didn’t have an appreciation of where those interests could take me.”

Building upon the lifestyle she already knew, Dickerson studied chemical engineering at Texas A&M University, where she took advantage of work internships in various career streams. It was while working a summer internship for Exxon Co. in Louisiana that she found a match for her talents and interests with the upstream and resource development. Her first assignment was as a reservoir engineer, modeling the recovery of oil and gas resources from Gulf of Mexico fields.

Like any another industry leader, Dickerson’s authority comes from a level of experiential knowledge that cannot be attained through taking any shortcuts.

“I spent seventeen years in production operations where we were optimizing facilities and ensuring we were maximizing the resource through prudent operations and capital investments,” Dickerson says. “I moved over to the major capital project side of our business about ten years ago which was, and remains, a growth area for ExxonMobil.”

 

Why and How Things Are Changing

The fact that more women are being given leadership roles is not by accident. Alaska’s oil companies are taking an active role in promoting the best talent for the job, regardless of gender, and the industry at large is increasing opportunities for those potential leaders who may have been overlooked due to our prevailing society’s former culture constraints.

“BP has set a global goal of having 25 percent women as group leaders by 2020,” Weiss says. “Today we have about 16 percent women represented as group leaders; a few decades ago, there were very few women in that group.”

ExxonMobil has applied a similar emphasis on getting more talented women into jobs traditionally held by men. “I continue to see an increasing number of women in leadership positions in resource development thanks to the focus our industry has placed on women’s development over the last few decades,” Dickerson says. “ExxonMobil established informal women’s leadership teams and networks to better understand the barriers to attracting, retaining, and developing women. These networks provide mentoring programs, leadership training, and support for women in the industry to help them successfully navigate the complex challenges we all face.”

“There appears to have been a workforce culture shift in resource industries that as women contribute and progress, those contributions are better recognized,” Weiss adds.

Additionally, there is a growing awareness that jobs in the resource development industry are no longer slated for male employees. More opportunities are being presented to women, and more women are reaching for them.

“More women are benefiting from educational opportunities in the appropriate fields,” Weiss says, “and more women are entering the resource industry.”

Dickerson echoes Weiss’s observation: “Today, more girls and women are exposed to engineering through corporate and other partnerships with educators. School-based programs like ‘Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day’ and ‘Science Ambassadors’ bring engineering and science into elementary, middle, and high school classrooms, and these programs are making a real difference attracting more women to the field. We are able to provide teachers with materials that expose students to science in an interesting and fun way through hands-on experiments, demonstrations, and by career discussions with women who solve math and science-based problems every day in the workplace.”

Weiss also stresses that women need to do their part: learn the corporate culture in order to ensure that their contributions are not overlooked.

“When climbing the ladder, it is important to continue to contribute and be heard as the issues change from an individual engineering challenge to an organizational direction, or culture issue,” She says. “A woman helps enable that progression when she works on ensuring she communicates well to her audience; she keeps her voice being heard at that table; and keeps herself in consideration for joining the next table in the progression.”

 

What About Our Daughters?

Despite those measures that companies are taking to level the playing field, undermining cultural tenets run deep. In order to ensure workplace gender equality, part of the onus for facilitating this change comes from the workers themselves.

As the mother of four children, including a set of twins, Dickerson has first-hand experience with balancing family with a high-powered career, and demonstrated an unwavering commitment to both while establishing herself as an industry leader.

“I had to really look at the challenges I was facing now with four children, a dual-career spouse who is also in the industry, and my own career,” she says. “I had open conversations with my management about what I needed to be successful in raising my family and in my job. I relied on mentors who had been through similar circumstances and considered all the advice I could get.

“I think the biggest hurdle women must overcome in this field is not letting the stereotypes of the workforce culture define them,” Dickerson says. “They must learn how to take part in redefining the culture. The energy industry needs more professionals in resource development. There is an increased worldwide demand for energy, and resource development is becoming increasingly more challenging and complex. Women should seize the opportunity to be part of that growth.”

That said, what concrete things can a competent aspiring female employee in the resource development industry do to help assure that she is considered to fill one of the seats at the head table?

“First,” Weiss says, “work on solving problems that add value. As you are solving problems, really try to connect which problem aspects actually drive material value, then work hard to deliver that value.”

Next, Weiss adds that the foreground is no place for the shrinking violet. “Step up and step in. Take on responsibility and follow through. Don’t beat yourself up about the mistakes along the way.”

Third, Weiss advises to “recognize that there is power in community. Connect and form relationships, especially with other women in industry. It’s a whole lot more fun that way.”

Dickerson also has some concrete advice for women who are interested in entering the resource development industry.

“Develop expertise in a core area that interests you, such as project management, while learning all you can about the business,” Dickerson says. “Be open-minded as your career develops and take advantage of every opportunity to learn about new areas of the business and to gain further experience. Build your network of mentors—both technical and personal—internal to your company and within industry. Take advantage of multiple types of leadership training—classes, reading material, case studies; ensure you understand your strengths and weaknesses and be an informal leader even when not in a formal leadership position. Know your definition of success and what satisfies you, as there are many types of leaders and leadership positions.”

 

Ultimately Humble

One universally refreshing characteristic of the women in resource development leadership positions is their lack of entitlement to their high positions and their readiness to give credit to those who walked the path before them, as well as those who were brave and wise enough to have a part in taking down the “no trespassing” sign.

“I don’t really consider myself a pioneer in this field as I have had several mentors and role models both in ExxonMobil and in industry who have helped paved the way for all of us,” Dickerson says.

“I draw on inspiration from some of Alaska’s greatest strides in history, moments like Alaska statehood and the building of TAPS,” Weiss says. “Those moments have come as a result of men and women with a shared vision of the future. They had the courage and determination to make the tough decisions.”

True to their natures as leaders, these women don’t dwell on their challenges, but instead can’t help but to inspire further progress.

“I’m looking forward to helping continue enabling big opportunities like Alaska gas,” Weiss says. “The State of Alaska has signaled something very important to industry: that the state can work through issues and find solutions. A healthy business environment, including industry/State relations, is a key enabler for advancing big challenging opportunities like we currently have before us.”

The key to success, as Dickerson put it, is “seeking new opportunities and building a strong support network!”

Mari Gallion is Associate Editor at Alaska Business Monthly.

This first appeared in the November 2013 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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