Do this for me: picture a drilling engineer. Are you seeing a man? I wouldn’t hold it against you if you were. But ask yourself: first, why this is, and second, does it have to be this way. Yassmin Abdel-Magied, 2011 state finalist for Young Australian of the Year and a supervising drilling engineer takes us through the rig landscape and considers how headway can be made to reduce the resident gender disparity in the industry.

201502_YassminWA Day in the Life of an Offshore Oilrig Engineering Supervisor

Hours before the sun has even contemplated rising, the night is interrupted by the piercing persistence of an alarm clock. A woman begins moving about in the dark and installs herself at a desk. For Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the ungodly hour of 2:30am constitutes the beginning of a daily three-hour report writing session. This is followed by a series of meetings plastered one on top of the other. A lucky crevice between meetings allows for breakfast and provides sustenance until 9am smoko marks the conclusion of the morning’s work. Abdel-Magied continues the day outdoors, supervising until 4 o’clock.  An afternoon sojourn finishes at 5:30pm for the night shift, which brings more meetings. It’s not until after 9pm that she can finally allow her eyes to close and let her consciousness drift away from the oilrig – an industrial platform in the middle of a desert sea.

The Composition of the Industry (gender, age)

Abdel-Magied is a part of the tiny 11.8% of women who have successfully steered their career into the engineering sector. This statistic represents the qualified engineers in 2011 either employed or actively seeking employment in the sector. However, a considerable disparity is apparent between states, with the ACT taking the lead and Tasmania dragging at the nation’s heels with 13% and 8.4% of women represented respectively.

At the age of just 24, Abdel-Magied is also one of the young women making headway in the industry. The latest data from the Australian Census shows that women engineers are on average almost five years younger than their male counterparts – 37.1 compared to 41.9 years of age.

Industry Developments

In her four short years working in the industry, Abdel-Magied has noticed the increasing employment of women in her field. At her current job with a major oil and gas company in Australia, three out of four of those hired at the time were women – including herself.

Target-setting is one motivator for small but significant change – with the company where Yassmin works aiming for 20% of their engineering workforce to be women in the future. They have furthermore made mandatory unconscious bias training sessions for their employers in order to overcome the single-sex dominated psyche of the past. It is an old-era mentality that Abdel-Magied is highly aware of, and comes face-to-face with on a regular basis. At a three-weeks training program for drilling engineering, “any time any of the lecturers would be talking about someone they would be like, ‘the drilling engineer he…’ or ‘the person he…’”–   to which Abdel-Magied continually added “or ‘she’”. Her passion for addressing unconscious bias as a component of achieving greater gender equality emanates strongly from her. She is pleased to be working for a company that has begun taking steps to achieve greater gender equity.

However, these foundational steps can be built upon. After raising the topic of unconscious bias and gender diversity, Yassmin sees the next challenge in positioning these topics and issues so as they resonate as relevant to those drilling on the rigs.

‘It’s finding a way to make all this extra stuff that they may not value straight-up relevant to them and show them why it adds value. And that is a more difficult conversation to have.’

Between the previous two censuses in 2006 and 2011 the gender composition of the industry has made some headway towards equity reform. The number employed in the engineering field, known as the demand for engineers, has grown to a much greater degree for women as it has for men in this time; 7.8% as opposed to 5.3%. This was reflected in the proportion of women in engineering rising 1.2%.

In terms of employment status there was a slight overall shift for both genders from full-time to part time employment. Women were already overrepresented in part-time employment and this proportion has continued to climb. Over this same period, the overall unemployment rate in engineering rose. Women still having almost double the unemployment rate of men in the industry; 6.2% compared to 3.1% for men in 2011.

Getting Women Into Engineering

While a gradual increase in the proportion of women in engineering is evident, this has corresponded with the small increase in the supply of women engineers – supply referring to those employed or actively seeking a job in that field. To put it more simply, currently there simply isn’t the depth of supply to increase demand. While statistics are changing slowly, a sizable shift will not occur without adjustments from the grass-roots upwards.

For Yassmin Abdel-Magied, many paths have aligned to facilitate the almighty trek she has had to undertake to make it into the industry.

Flashback 15 years, and she recalls the controlled gush of water after changing a broken bathroom tap at home. For her, this was a simple and not unusual experience; but one that not all girls have when growing up. It was activities such as this that enabled Yassmin to see the work that they were characterized under as “as accessible to me as my brother.”

There are many components of a child’s upbringing that will facilitate them in being able to conceive all professions as possible regardless of whether they have traditionally been dominated by a particular sex. Parents’ attitudes is one of these, and Abdel-Magied draws attention to the significance of adult carer perceptions.

“A young daughter may want to play with Lego all she wants- but if her Dad says ‘ah darling, are you sure you don’t want me to get you a Barbie doll?’ or something like that. That will sit in the back of her mind for a really long time.” She suggests buying non-gendered gifts and stresses that “when kids are really young never say, ‘oh no that’s a boy’s game’ or ‘that’s a girl’s game.’”

As a high school student Yassmin had never met a female engineer. The lack of female engineers acting as role models presents another hurdle for girls and young women in seeing themselves in such a profession. Yassmin encourages more female engineers to step out and help fill this void by visiting places like schools to lead the way and kick the trend.

Already by Year 12, males outnumber females 3:1 in both advanced maths and physics. Subsequently, at a university level this gender disparity is astronomical, with the proportion of female domestic students both commencing and completing bachelor or post graduate degrees in those fields at 15.3% in 2011.

One thing that Yassmin gratefully identifies and attributes her career progression to is having had “really amazing sponsors”. Mentoring and advice were invaluable to her, and she urges others “not be afraid to ask for stuff.”

Keeping Women in Engineering

Even past tertiary qualification, the gender gap continues to widen in engineering. Another major disparity that has been identified is the retention rates within the industry. This is the difference between the supply and the number in engineering occupations. Again, this is significantly lower for women than men- 47.1% and 62.6% respectively.

Even among the other women that Yassmin studied with at university, a large number of them aren’t working in engineering anymore. Many women after the first 5-10 years end up leaving, often for a variety of reasons. One of which Yassmin identifies is that engineering “is not an easy career to have a baby at the same time. In the sense that when you’re making a mark and running a big project you’re in the twenties, early thirties bracket and that’s usually when women want to have babies.”

However, even when this is not the case, women may still be discriminated against because of employer assumption. “They think that she wants to have a baby at that age so they will pre-emptively not offer her work. I know an example of when a boss said to a friend of mine ‘don’t worry about getting full time, you’re going to want to have kids soon anyways’. So that immediately disadvantages you… all those little things add up.”

Keeping a Level Head

With all this in mind Yassmin Abdel-Magied can still take a step back and say, “try not to think about it in an ‘us versus them’ thing, because it’s not about that. Yeah there are challenges, yeah there’s cultural change that is needed… People ultimately have the same needs and desires. So something I find interesting about working in the field is guys like talking to me. They may not necessarily know how to deal with me as a supervisor but they like talking to me because I’m interested in their life story, I’m willing to have a conversation. I’ll listen. Ultimately the toughest guy on the block still just wants to feels like they’re valued and they’re worth something.”

Words by Sam Goerling

You can find out more about Yassmin by reading her first book and memoir, “Yassmin’s Story”, available for purchase here