Women breach male stronghold in oil industry where female loos were rare

The challenges that come with being a woman in the traditionally male-dominated oil industry have never stopped Ryu Bok Young, an engineer at SK Global Chemical Co.
The challenges that come with being a woman in the traditionally male-dominated oil industry have never stopped Ryu Bok Young, an engineer at SK Global Chemical Co.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - Ryu Bok Young is confident she can do anything a man does in the sprawling Ulsan refinery in South Korea, be it scaling 100-metre steel towers or working through the night when repairing the plant. The challenges that come with being a woman in the traditionally male-dominated oil industry have never stopped her.

But she worries a baby might.

Newly wed, the 28-year-old engineer is now considering her options for when she has children. Taking a break would be inevitable given the safety concerns of an expectant mother climbing towers or the difficulty of staying away from her baby all night.

"If I were a man, these are things I wouldn't have to worry about," said Ryu, who joined SK Innovation Co., the nation's top refiner, in 2012.

Women like Ryu are pioneers in a business where about 80 per cent of the global workforce is male, women's bathrooms at some refineries are a relatively new addition, and the term 'oilman' has its own dictionary entry.

But in the aftermath of the crash in crude prices that began three years ago, Big Oil is redefining its business model and realising that hiring and retaining more women would boost profitability.

Asian firms, which lag behind other regions in gender diversity, are now catching up, with SK and Japan's Showa Shell Sekiyu K.K. focusing more on female workers.

"Women are under-represented in the oil and gas industry in general and Asia is no exception," said Katharina Rick, a partner at Boston Consulting Group, who co-authored a report on promoting gender balance in oil and gas.

"The industry has made several attempts since the late 1980s to become a more inclusive work environment but the numbers have not increased as fast as in other industries."

Women accounted for only 22 per cent of the workforce in oil and gas, one of the smallest ratios among major industries, according to the BCG report. Only construction ranked lower, with an 11 per cent female representation. Finance had 39 per cent, and health and social work 60 per cent.

Though the share of female workers in office-based roles has increased, it is nowhere near parity in technical and field roles outside of the office, BCG's Rick said. When refiners first started hiring more women, there was a scarcity of bathrooms for them at some plants as the facilities only employed men.

While women account for about 30 per cent of the workforce at global oil majors such as Exxon Mobil Corp. in the US and BP Plc in the UK, the proportion sinks to below 10 per cent at many large Asian refiners like India's Reliance Industries Ltd., South Korea's S-Oil Corp. and Japan's Idemitsu Kosan Co., according to data compiled by Bloomberg.


One of the relatively better ratios in the region can be found at Showa Shell, where about 24 per cent of employees are women. With roots in The Hague-based Royal Dutch Shell Plc, the firm has been trying to increase female workers for the last 20 years at the urging of its former European parent company.

Some numbers show success: It hired more female graduates than males for the first time ever this year. Yet it only has one woman on its eight-member board.

Ayumi Takahashi recalls that when she joined Showa Shell more than 20 years ago, the few women who were sent to gas stations would have their abilities questioned by the men who owned the service stands. They would ask "what could you possibly offer?" Women still face gender discrimination in the industry, she says.

"Every woman definitely experiences it at one time or another," said Takahashi, now a manager in the oil business research and development division at Showa Shell. "We repeatedly face hardships but keep going."

Takahashi and colleague Yuri Inoue, head of the company's legal division, are pushing to break down gender barriers at Showa Shell as they hold workshops and seminars to educate men on the importance of diversity.

Their firm plans to boost women in leadership positions from 13 out of 211 to at least 26 by March 2020.

"It's difficult for companies to differentiate themselves in the oil industry," said Inoue. "It's vital to have diversity for survival."

Crude's price crash, geopolitical instability and changes to environmental regulations are driving a fundamental shift in the oil and gas industry, according to an Ernst & Young Global Ltd. survey last year.

Diversity is key to navigating the disruption, and more needs to be done to attract, retain and promote women, according to the survey, where 61 per cent of respondents recognized that gender diversity impacts financial performance.

"Given the challenges within the oil and gas industry, it's hard to understand why companies wouldn't want the financial benefits diversity can bring," the report said.

The South Korean and Japanese firms may have an added incentive to hire more women as both countries have a rapidly aging population. The top three Korean refiners, SK, GS Caltex Corp. and S-Oil, have all created daycare facilities at their headquarters.

Still, they have a long way to go. The proportion of female employees at SK has only marginally increased to 10.9 per cent in the last 10 years, even as it provides longer maternity leave and flexible hours to working mothers.

Byun Hye Jin, 27, joined SK five years ago as an engineer. Her predecessors told her stories of how they would drive far to find women's bathrooms, a sentiment independently echoed by Takahashi.

While facilities for women have now improved, challenges remain.

Like Ryu, Byun worries having children could affect her career, and refinery maintenance periods would be hard given she'd have to stay overnight. But even though initial dreams of ascending to head of a plant seem tough, she hasn't lost hope.

"We don't have any female engineers who have taken executive positions yet but I'm sure it will happen," Byun said. "And I'd like to be one of them one day."