Women find careers in energy as downstream, petchems see growth

When Jessica Ullom goes to work, she dons a white hard hat, safety glasses, metatarsal boots, and a portable gas monitor. Most of her days are spent in the rural fields of Western Pennsylvania, overseeing the environmental conditions at well sites.

At a completed Marcellus shale well pad on Old Hickory Road in Washington County, Ms. Ullom lifts the cover of a large green storage container to check for spills. Nearby, her colleague Hannah McAvoy, maneuvers through thick lines of green piping, making sure everything is in place.

Ms. Ullom and Ms. McAvoy are environmental technicians with Range Resources, a Texas-based oil and gas company with operations in Canonsburg. They got into the oil and gas industry three to four years ago because it provided them with opportunities they couldn’t get elsewhere.

They’re not alone.

The number of women involved in oil and gas extraction activities has remained relatively flat in the last two decades, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, those in support activities have more than doubled with 33,900 women in those roles in June. By 2030, 185,000 women could be in oil and gas related jobs, a 2014 study from the global information company IHS reports.

Nationally, over the past 10 years, there has been a 144 percent increase in such jobs occupied by both men and women, according to the BLS. In May, there were 310,600 employees in such occupations compared to 127,200 in 2004.

Oil and gas industry jobs span activities from the well head to downstream processing and manufacturing. While the industry has career opportunities in each sector, women are slightly more involved in the downstream and petrochemical phases of production, according to the IHS study.

“I think the issue with downstream is that it has a mix of occupations, some of which are a little more attractive from a standpoint of female employment,” said James Gillula, managing director of consulting services at IHS.

Upstream jobs tend to have a much higher concentration of blue-collar occupations, which are often heavy manual labor and craft skills, while downstream jobs may include administrative or clerical positions, Mr. Gillula said.

In the field

Ms. Ullom and Ms. McAvoy are the only female environmental technicians at Range, but have seen other women out at well sites. More than 30 percent of the workers in Range Resource’s Marcellus Shale division are female, according to Mark Windle, a spokesman for Range.

“There are a few out there,” Ms. McAvoy said. “We have one other lady who works in the electrical field.”

Lindsey Coffield is a safety specialist with Consol Energy’s gas operations in West Virginia. She makes sure those out at well sites are following proper safety policies and procedures.

“When I’m on site, I’ll come across some other women,” said Ms. Coffield, 24. “It’s certainly a male-dominated industry still, but there are some women.”

Ms. Coffield first heard of Consol while she was at a career fair at college. After she graduated from West Virginia University, she applied for a job and never looked back.

“I’ve only been in this position for a few months now, but I love my job,” she said. “Everyone is willing to work with you to ensure they’re following everything they need to.”

Industry challenges

As Ms. Coffield said, oil and gas is still a male-dominated industry, and with that, there are some that think gender-based discrimination is prevalent.

In 2013, oil giant BP and Rigzone, an online oil and gas publication, produced a study in which they surveyed 3,026 oil and gas professionals. Of the study’s respondents, 20 percent said they strongly believe gender-based discrimination is still alive and well in the industry.

Ms. Ullom has had other jobs where she has experienced such discrimination, but said she has not encountered that at Range.

“I think within this industry you are always going to have a couple of the old school guys who think that women aren’t supposed to be out there, but I haven’t run into anything,“ she said.

Neither has Ms. McAvoy.

“I don’t think anyone has looked at me like ‘you don’t belong here,’” Ms. McAvoy said.

Brittany Thomas, coordinator of external affairs at Texas-based Cabot Oil and Gas, said for the most part the industry has been welcoming, not just with women but also with young people.

“People my age, male or female, we’re trying to help each other,” she said. “I haven’t heard of anyone who has been discouraged.”

Ms. Thomas graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 2011 and had her sights set on California, where she had been offered a job with a consumer electronics boutique firm. Then she met someone from the energy industry who helped her realize she didn’t have to leave Pennsylvania to find a job.

“It kind of opened up a whole realm of possibilities I never thought were before me,” she said. “I didn’t think about it from a business perspective. I thought of it as, you go out to Texas or Oklahoma, and you’re out on location for months at a time.”

Nicolle Snyder Bagnell, an oil and gas attorney with Pittsburgh-based law firm Reed Smith, recalls the first oil and gas conference she attended in the early 2000s.

“I remember going and coming back to work and telling my boss that he should have told me to wear my blue blazer because there were no other women, and that’s changed dramatically,” she said. “That’s partly because of the nature of more women being in law than there were.”

Madasyn Czebiniak: mczebiniak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1269. Twitter: @PG_Czebiniak

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