Blog & News

Diversity & Inclusivity: Opinion Piece by Shereen Nairne

Fri 29 March 2019

Category: Diversity & Inclusivity, Opinion Piece


Article by Shereen Nairne, Geophysicist, Woodside Energy Ltd.

The session on Diversity and Inclusion at PETEX 2018 was a step in the right direction, however as a black woman in the oil and gas industry I did not attend. Such stand-alone sessions face the risk of preaching to the converted. It is my opinion that such discussions have a greater impact when woven into the main keynote messages where they can reach a wider audience. One should not have to choose between attending a diversity discussion and a technical talk.

It is the nature of our business and of the world today, that we find ourselves working amongst persons of different nationalities, race, gender and sexual preferences. It would be great if we could all respect or even celebrate each other’s differences, so that we can simply ‘get on with the job’. However in my experience other factors tend to get in the way.

Many positive steps have been taken to address issues that may be faced by minority groups in oil and gas and in wider society; however, there is still work to be done. For instance, whilst it is illegal for companies to actively discriminate against persons from a minority background, illegal and unethical questions still get asked in interviews today. This has happened to me. Bias is real. It exists both on a conscious and unconscious level (we all have unconscious bias) and it can be damaging. Bias is particularly damaging when demonstrated by persons in positions of authority and most impactful on those who are in the formative years of their careers.

My experience has taught me that there are many who automatically ascribe positive attributes such as intelligence, technical competence, and leadership abilities to those who look and sound like them. Those who are white, male, overly confident and native English speakers (and who can drink a few pints) are often given the most interesting projects, as well as informal mentoring and strategic career advice. They are also likely to be better paid for doing the same job and are more likely to be promoted.

Throughout my career I have seen and experienced persons of colour, women, non-native English speakers, and persons who are a bit more introverted; spoken to in a condescending fashion, passed over for interesting projects (which heavily impacts career progression), passed up for promotions and paid significantly less than their peers for doing the same work.
I will share two experiences here which may appear relatively minor however they are part of a repeated pattern of interactions.

As a masters student at University of Aberdeen I interviewed for a job with a major oil company. A member of the interview panel commented that my undergraduate degree was from ‘University of Bob Marley’ as I had studied Geology at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. I was speechless. In that moment the message was clear. Despite obtaining the same master’s degree as my peers I would not be judged in the same way.

I recall another incident at a major conference where after rushing in to take a seat at a technical session, the man next to me immediately turned to me and before saying anything else said ‘where are you from?’ I told him the name of my company. He replied, ’No, which country?’ It seemed to me the true question was ‘What are you doing here?’

Each act of discrimination, however insignificant, creates a challenge for the person who faces it. It is an extra obstacle that they must overcome in order to bring their best selves to work.
I certainly agree that the ‘victimhood mentality’ is not to be encouraged. It is not a positive place and no-one wants to be pitied. However, the onus is on each one of us not to be complacent. It is not enough to say, ‘I am not like that’ and to think that everything is fine. We have to speak up when we see instances of people being treated unfairly or being overlooked and, we have to continuously examine ourselves to ensure that we are not a part of the problem.

Most persons whom I have met take you as you are, and so one can simply ‘get on with the job’. However there are a few who either knowingly or unknowingly cause harm. They should not be ignored. Thankfully, I have also met a few persons in the industry who critically examine these issues and actively attempt to level the playing field. They are my heroes.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer

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