Interview with Norzaimah M Alias, TP Principal, Group Technical Solutions, PETRONAS

Oil and gas industry - refinery at twilight

Norzaimah shared some main challenges that come with being a woman in the traditionally male-dominated oil industry.

Please introduce your role at PETRONAS

I’ve been working in the oil and gas industry for over 23 years. I started as a chemical/process engineer. And now, as Principal (Hydrotreating & Reforming) of the Process Technology (Refinery) Section, I manage all the process operations across our plants. Recently I moved from the plant to HQ. Which has made my role a lot more strategic.

What does your typical workday look like?

What my typical workday should look like is simple process management. My main role is to provide all the technical assistance to all the plants. They raise a request. We help. It’s a lot of project and process monitoring. What actually happens is, as well as this I now juggle a lot of new ideas from senior management for new pro-active initiatives. I take them and I liaise with the plants: which can be a challenge as I’m no longer on the ground! Overall, my time is split approximately three ways: addressing solutions requests, programme development, and our new CapEx project.

How do you think the oil and gas industry compares to other industries when it comes to gender diversity?

It’s hard to say: all my friends are in the oil and gas industry! I guess I don’t go out a lot! But seriously, I think it depends on the role and work. For example, there are a lot of technical jobs. These tend to attract more male employees. When I started working, diversity wasn’t big at all. But that wasn’t necessarily because of discrimination but because women just generally weren’t interested! As time has gone on, the number of female engineers has increased. More and more companies – PETRONAS included –  are hiring female graduates. My friends’ children are seeing women from the generation above, like me, in senior positions. And because of this exposure, more young women are becoming interested, realising this is something they can do.

Women represent a growing segment of oil and gas workforce but what are the main challenges that come with being a woman in the traditionally male-dominated oil industry?

I think there has always been this joke that to succeed in the industry, you have to “Talk like a lady, act like a lady but think like a man and work like a man”. For me, I’ve always found it hard to be anyone but myself, whether that’s acting “feminine” or “masculine”. I think it’s important to be authentic. The problem is that ‘being authentic’ is typically misunderstood as being whoever you are without bothering to make the effort to improve your interpersonal skill which can further your progression to leadership.

How have things changed within the industry during your career?

I think that as I said, there’s more exposure now. It’s possible to see women in high visibility positions, working on high visibility projects. The question is how do we increase this exposure further, making sure that we see even more women in high-level positions and nurturing talent from the junior levels up?

How do you see the industry developing over the next five years when it comes to gender diversity and opportunities for women to reach leadership?

I think that there will (hopefully) be even more opportunities for women in oil and gas. There will be more women VIPs and in the boardroom. How do I know this? I see it! I look around and a lot of the top talent I see at all levels is female!

Are there any mentors/female role models in the industry who you look up to?

In the industry, I have to say no. All my role models are male! I’m a technical specialist and when I was progressing through the ranks, the people on the top rungs of the ladder were male, that’s just how it was. But I don’t choose my role models based on gender, I choose them based on who I want to be. And I have a female role model, she’s just not in the industry! Marissa Mayer (former CEO of Yahoo). She has the confidence I wish I had. And she juggles the pressures of working life with running a family as well. I don’t know how she does it!

How do you think growing awareness of sustainability will most impact the industry/your organisation?

I think that the trend towards sustainability is something critical that is impacting the industry and it’s something we’re taking seriously at PETRONAS. For example, one of my current projects is working on PETRONAS’s first ever bio-refinery. PETRONAS is making the effort to somehow ‘balance’ the growing demand for petchem products and specialty chemicals by committing to work on green projects such as renewable energy, green hydrogen and carbon capture technology.

How do you see the role of digitalisation in refining, petrochemicals, & chemicals?

I think that there are more and more new technologies being used to address business needs. One main one is predictive analytics. Another is linked to the trend for “going green” and lower carbon emissions. I think that there is, and will continue to be a rise in carbon capture and other related technologies.

In your opinion, what is one of the best ways to attract more women into the oil and gas industry?

I think that education is important. And exposure. How do we increase and spread the profile of women leaders in the oil and gas industry? How do we make them as famous as Marissa Mayer?!

What advice would you give to women considering a career in the downstream industry? Is there anything you wish you had known when you first started?

Honestly? Know yourself. Understand your strengths. Your weaknesses. And have the confidence to accept them and be authentic in the workplace. Improving oneself needs to be a continuous process. Specifically for us women, we have to admit that our biggest enemy within us is our emotion and therefore, we need to learn the best way to control our emotion to work for us and not against us. This is a long process and because I started quite late on this self-development journey, it’s slowed the progression of my leadership.

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