In Alaska’s oil and gas industry, the future is female

SPONSORED: Moms are an important part of Alaska’s oil and gas workforce, but that doesn’t mean there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to being a woman in petroleum.

Presented by AKOG

Jennifer Starck was all set to head to medical school after finishing her degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering. Then she encountered a BP recruiter at a job fair. Before she knew it, she had a job offer and a choice to make.

“They said ‘Houston or Alaska?’ and I said ‘Alaska,’” Starck recalled. “And they said ‘No, seriously -- Houston or Alaska?’”

She insisted, and she never looked back. After 21 years, Alaska -- and the petroleum industry -- has become her home.

Starck is just one of the many women who help keep Alaska’s oil and gas flowing. And just like Starck, many other women in the petroleum industry made their way there on unexpected paths. Jacki Rose planned to work in mining; she now handles regulatory permitting and compliance for Bluecrest Energy. Laura Green started her career in fire protection systems; she is now the regional safety manager for Hilcorp Alaska.

None of these women imagined they’d end up in the oil and gas industry -- or that they’d love it as much as they do.

‘You aspire to be what you see’

If you think of petroleum as a male-dominated industry, you’re not entirely wrong, although it depends on what part of the business you’re talking about. A 2018 survey by the Petroleum Equipment and Services Association found that women make up 15 percent of the national oil and gas workforce, although that share is higher in early career roles; about one-third of entry-level oil and gas workers are female, according to a 2019 McKinsey report.

“When you’re supporting operations in the field, that definitely tends to be male-dominated,” Green said. “When you get into the support roles, the reservoir engineering groups, the other types of engineering, the financial side of the business, legal side -- those things tend to be more balanced.”

According to the PESA study, women make up 8 percent of the technical workforce within the petroleum industry but 31 percent in support functions. The lower share of women on the technical side of the business is reflective of general career trends. In 2016, Department of Labor data showed women comprised 46.8 percent of the workforce but just 26 percent in STEM fields and 16 percent in engineering specifically. Alaska oil and gas companies have supported efforts like the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program and the Girl Scouts' Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day to help encourage more young women to pursue careers in science.

“You aspire to be what you see,” Green said. “The more women that are in the industry doing these jobs, the more women will come into these jobs.”

And studies indicate that’s a good thing -- not just for the women who end up in those jobs, but for the companies that employ them. Research has found there are real benefits to having more women in the workplace, including to the bottom line.

Saying yes to new challenges

While Starck, Rose and Green do very different jobs, they share one important quality: a willingness to take a chance on a bold career move.

Early in her career, Starck was assigned to a progression of North Slope assignments as she learned the business -- first wells intervention work, then coil tubing, and then moved to operations and worked to optimize the production from all of the surface facilities across Prudhoe Bay.

“I got to jump in the middle of all the Prudhoe facilities,” Starck said. “I loved it. Absolutely, positively loved it. This was my thing: optimize and make things better every single day.”

She so thrived in the role that in 2004, BP offered her a unique opportunity: to go to Russia and optimize the surface facilities at the Samotlor oilfield in Siberia. She didn’t know the country or speak the language -- yet -- but the idea of a new venture in a completely foreign place was as exciting as it was intimidating.

“My best moves have been the things that scare me,” Starck said, whether the big decision was changing her career plans, moving to Alaska, or picking up and heading to Russia (which she did, commuting between Moscow and Siberia for four years before returning to Alaska).

That’s a sentiment echoed by Green, who accepted a “temporary” assignment on a fire protection engineering project for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. 17 years ago and has worked in Alaska’s petroleum industry ever since.

“Don’t be afraid to take risks,” Green said. “Especially at a time in your life or your career where you’re going to learn something from it even if it doesn’t work out.”

Take it from Rose, who learned while working on a master’s degree in geology that she didn’t like being underground. That led her to a career change, and eventually to permitting and compliance work, which doesn’t have much relation to her educational background. As it turns out, though, she excels at the work, which she never would have expected to enjoy.

“I had no idea I would be doing this,” Rose said. “It just sort of happened -- and I really like it. I love regulations. I like reading them, I like interpreting them -- I had no idea.”

Different families, different needs

Becoming a parent is life-changing for anyone. In oil and gas, which is a demanding, 24/7 industry, working moms and their families find a variety of ways to balance home life with the careers they love. Paid parental leave and flexible work arrangements are among the factors PESA identified that could help retain women in the oil and gas industry -- and not coincidentally, they are among some of the things women in Alaska’s petroleum industry cite when they talk about what they like about their jobs.

Going back to work after having her children was easy, Starck said, in part because she was able to take adequate maternity leave and work offered her flexibility when she needed it.

“My bosses were always really understanding and reasonable,” she said. “They knew I would get the job done.”

That flexibility becomes even more important when you’re parenting without a partner. Rose became a single parent when her children were small, and that quickly taught her the importance of setting boundaries at work, making clear to colleagues that early and late meetings couldn’t be part of her routine anymore.

“You need to have balance,” Rose said. “Speak up for yourself.”

At Green’s house, her husband’s job is more flexible so he takes the lead on kid-related responsibilities, an arrangement that is becoming more common; Millennial dads are twice as likely as Generation X dads were to stay home with their kids. Green said she sees stereotypical parenting roles shifting as moms and dads alike want to be more involved.

“It just seems like now, even the last 11 years, that has really changed,” Green said. “People want that connection with their kids, and employers are going to have to figure out how to accommodate all that. It will allow all of us to succeed better.”

The power of people

Besides being moms and loving a challenge, there’s one more thing Starck, Rose and Green all have in common: Each expresses a sense of pride that they play a role in an industry that contributes so significantly to how Alaskans live.

That has been especially true lately for Starck, who found herself again saying “yes” to something new when Hilcorp bought BP’s interests in Alaska. Expecting she’d be laid off as Hilcorp reorganized operations, instead she was offered -- and accepted -- a role overseeing the company’s onshore Kenai natural gas program -- a resource and region that she had never really considered.

“I had never looked south,” Starck said. “I had been looking north all this time. I didn’t know what was in my backyard.”

That’s a good thing, she added, and her goal is for every Anchorage area resident to remain that worry-free. If they don’t have any reason to think about the Cook Inlet natural gas that powers the region, that means everything’s running smoothly. It’s a big responsibility, but Starck said she considers it a privilege.

“I work with absolutely amazing brilliant people,” she said. “And I get to work in this state and I get to do something that people don’t have to think about because they turn on their lights and it works, every time.”

That sense of teamwork and collaboration -- and of being part of something bigger than themselves -- is a thread that runs through all three women’s positive experiences in Alaska’s oil and gas industry, from the North Slope to Anchorage offices to the shores of Cook Inlet.

“Smart, energetic, bold people work in this industry,” Green said. “It’s the best part for sure -- and getting to fly an Otter down to Kenai on a beautiful day doesn’t hurt, either.”

AKOG is a diverse community of Alaskans who are proud to work in the oil and gas industry. Established for industry employees, by industry employees, AKOG’s goal is to share our pride in what we do with our friends and neighbors.

This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with AKOG. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.