Commentary: We’re advancing, but more must be done for our female engineers

Who run the world?

If you know your pop music, the correct answer would be an enthusiastic “Girls!” thanks to Beyoncé, but the reality is… Not so much.

According to data from the US-based National Science Foundation, women were found to make up only 28% of the workforce in science and engineering occupations in the United States, with an even measlier 15% in engineering.

It’s slightly better here in Southeast Asia:

We’re making improvements, that’s true, but more can and should be done to encourage female participation – and leadership – within the realm of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

“It’s important for women to have a voice in STEM fields, not just for the sake of diversity, but because women bring different perspectives and ideas to the table. We need to create an environment where everyone feels valued and respected, regardless of their gender.” Says Dr. Rosalind Tan, a research scientist in computational biology at A*STAR.

When it comes to the refining and petrochemicals sector – a niche within STEM – women find even less representation across the board, making up only 22% of the refining and petrochemicals industry workforce in the United States.

This same report from the American Petroleum Institute (API) also found that women in the refining and petrochemicals industry are more likely to work in administrative or support roles, rather than technical or engineering roles.

In Southeast Asia, things are even more dismal, with women comprising only 18% of the oil and gas workforce. Even then, they’re typically concentrated in non-technical roles such as finance, human resources, and marketing.

Common reasons for the lack of female representation in this field may include:

  • Gender bias, with lower pay, fewer opportunities for advancement, and a lack of mentorship and support
  • Stereotypes and cultural expectations, with STEM seemingly more “masculine” or “technical”, and with women seen to be better suited to more “feminine” fields such as caregiving and social work
  • Underrepresentation, which is a bit of a vicious cycle – women lack visible models and representation, which may discourage them from pursuing these fields and thus further contributing to a lack of representation in the long run

Shares Cécile Plain, Decarbonization & Consulting Business Development – Technology Principal Expert at Axens, “Since I was young, I’ve always felt that as a woman, you need to be more performant than a man for the same requirement, to attest first that you have the competencies to work – you need to continuously demonstrate that you have legitimacy.”

It’s not all bad news

However, not all is doom and gloom. To have women working in refining and petrochemicals, you first need women studying in STEM-related fields.

There are even programmes and initiatives aimed at encouraging female participation in STEM education and careers, such as Singapore Women in Science, a group that promotes gender diversity and inclusion in science fields in Singapore, offering networking events, mentorship opportunities, and resources for women in science, as well as outreach programmes to encourage girls to pursue STEM education and careers.

It’s a long and arduous process, but slowly, surely, there is a difference – more women are starting to pursue careers in STEM-related fields. According to data from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the global share of female researchers increased from 29% in 2013 to 33% in 2018.

It’s important to acknowledge and celebrate strides – no matter how small – that are made toward progress. However, it is equally important to note that this progress has been slow and uneven, with women still continuing to be underrepresented in many STEM fields, most notably in leadership positions.

At the end of the day, it’s currently still a man’s man’s world… But perhaps not for very much longer.

As Nurfarahslinda, Senior Communications Manager of the Asian Clean Fuels Association, puts it, “Gender, race and religion is never an impediment to success. The oil and gas industry has long shed its “all boys’ club” outlook. Today we are equally seeing female CEOs, engineers, geologists, plant managers and others paving the future for a more profitable and sustainable O&G sector.”