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Christine Williams on Discrimination Against Women in Oil and Gas


The sociologist Christine Williams is one of the leading ethnographers working on gender and work. Her work considers a complex and nuanced set of questions. But every now and then she returns to the basic question about women in work – how and why are women excluded from top jobs?

The orthodox answer to this question is “Discrimination”.

Christine Williams’ answer to this question is “Discrimination”.

However, the evidence that she puts on the table is pretty devastating.

Christine Williams’ Gas-Lighted: How the Oil and Gas Industry Shortchanges Women Scientists (California, 2021) is a study of the wrecking of careers of women engineers and geologists in the oil and gas industry, with a particular focus on one unnamed but famous firm. She surveyed a large cohort of male and female managers who entered that one company within a five-year period, interviewed women engineers in other companies and analyzed a global survey of petroleum engineers. The women at the primary company (there weren’t very many of them) and a subset of men were followed over time with annual long open-ended interviews about their careers and personal lives.

The oil and gas industry is well known for its shabby treatment of women. The labor force is heavily male. Executive leadership is heavily male. Oil and gas jobs, however, are extremely lucrative. Those women who are able to get in earn salaries far in excess of what could be obtained elsewhere, with the possible exception of investment banking. For engineers, many of the jobs are intrinsically rewarding as well. Women work on sophisticated and challenging tasks, often involving the development and extraction of oil under difficult technical conditions. Oil companies collect vast amounts of data on both the geology of the world and on their own operations – giving scientists opportunities to do pathbreaking analyses that could lead to significant innovation. Oil jobs are dream jobs. However, not many women in the labor force get oil and gas jobs. Not many women who get oil and gas jobs are allowed to keep them.

The energy industry expresses great concern about the lack of women in petroleum engineering. They invest in programs to promote young girls studying science and engineering in school. They run elaborate camps, workshops and campus visits to attract female science majors and graduate students. There is substantial social-responsibility marketing showing their good-faith attempts to bring in women, and the wonderful jobs that women are currently holding in their companies.

Christine Williams calls this “gaslighting” (ergo the title of the book). The companies say everything the men do is wonderful. The companies say the problems of individual women are the product of their own idiosyncratic issues. Williams says the corporate story is baloney.

Christine Williams lists a lot of things that the oil companies do to restrict women’s careers. In this 200-page book, about 170 pages contain analysis. A typical analysis page adds two more things the oil companies have done to exclude women. The abominations pile up and pile up. Having seen bad stuff on page 40 does not prepare you for the bad stuff you see on page 60. Just when you think you have seen it all, you are going to see toppers on page 180. Over the course of the book, things just get worse and worse.

Common issues include:

a. The aggressive hiring of young engineers during oil booms, and followed by laying off older and midcareer engineers in oil slumps. The young women engineers are encouraged to design elaborate career paths in their first years of employment, only to find the second good half of the anticipated career path never happens.

b. The concentration of layoffs among women workers. Affirmative action programs concentrate on increasing diversity in the hiring process. Layoffs are based on “business considerations”. Those never-named business considerations hit women harder than men.

c. Toxic relationships between women and male supervisors. They are lied to by their supervisors; their work is undercut; they are given work assignments that set them up to fail.

d. Massive prejudice against women who have children. Virtually all the women who were able to avoid layoffs were childless. In contrast, men are encouraged to have full families.

e. Consistent reassignment of women away from areas where they had academic training or had performed well into new departments where they had no particular skill advantage.

f. Creation of a constant environment of uncertainty about the probability of future layoffs – inducing women to leave proactively when other opportunities present themselves.

In an ideal world, it would be nice to have statistics on what percentage of men and women received these awful treatments. The oil and gas companies never release data of that kind. We have to rely on the results of Williams’ exhaustive interviewing.

But her data do suggest very strong gender imbalances.

It is clearly the case that most of the female managers who survived were childless, while the male managers who survived had children.

It is clearly the case that the overwhelming majority of surviving managers in the case study were male.

It is clearly the case that every woman who was interviewed in Williams’ main company had received some form of shabby treatment. Even those survivors who reported loving the company  told objective stories about rough treatment and narrowly-avoided screw-overs. The winners in the rat-race had to manage constant danger. The losers fared worse.

Why do oil and gas companies treat their women so badly? Christine Williams cites work by Robert Ross that shows that countries dominated by the oil industry tend to be patriarchal. I would add work by Valentine Moghadam who has spent a lifetime documenting this relationship. When a country is making money hand over fist pumping oil, there is no need to develop traditionally female industries such as export manufacture. A “resource curse” undercuts any development of any economic opportunity that does not involve oil. The government underinvests in education; it underinvests in other sectors of the economy. Women find themselves marginalized – and stuck at home with patriarchal men.

My own work echoes the arguments made by Williams and Ross and Moghadam. Men are generally sexist and exclusionist. They like reserving jobs for themselves, and telling themselves that “only a real man” could do the jobs that they do.

They are kept from making the entire economy all male because women work more cheaply than men. The cost savings that come from hiring women who work for a discount are substantial. In most developing economies, reducing costs to make one’s exports internationally competitive is essential. This is why countries like China or the Philippines hire lots of women in international manufacturing and working in call centers. They need the cheapest workers they can possibly get.

Oil and gas companies don’t give a damn about how much they pay for their workers. The high prices associated with oil and gas mean that energy companies can pay as much as they like for their workers and still be massively profitable. The salaries paid to blue collar workers, scientists and executives in oil companies are among the highest in the global economy. They have all the money they need to hire men.

There is a parallel logic that applies to engineering. In engineering, it is less important that you pay the lowest possible wage for your engineers. What matters is that those engineers create discoveries that are high payoff. Geologists in oil companies are looking for oil. Finding a big new well is like winning the lottery. Increasing the efficiency of extracting that oil is highly lucrative as well. The value of engineers’ discoveries dwarf the money the company pays engineers in salary.

So cost cutting doesn’t matter for oil engineers. This allows the oil companies or engineering companies to be as sexist as they like. They don’t need women workers as cheap labor. In fact, they don’t need women workers for much of anything.

Christine Williams shows what happens when there are no economic checks on bad male gendered behavior. Men behave very badly. Women are systematically mistreated and excluded – even if they are offered a temporary visit to the all-boys carnival with the fountain that gushes all that cash.

At the carnival, the women get a very short ride. The ride is not that much fun while it lasts.

For More Information

Christine Williams’ book has a marvelous bibliography with lots of other citations to really useful materials on shabby treatment of women at work.

On oil making whole countries go sexist, see Williams’ very good citation: Michael Ross. The Oil Curse: How Petroleum Wealth Shapes the Development of Nations. (Princeton, 2012).

For a longer treatment of the gender implications of oil, see Valentine Moghadam. Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East. (Lynne Reiner, 2010)

On needing cheap labor as a factor that restricts male sexism, see both the essay by myself and the jointly written essay by myself and Rae Blumberg in Gender and Development: Economic Basis of Women’s Power. (Sage, 2019).

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