WHEN the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Christine Lagarde spoke at the University of Malaya recently, she highlighted the need to improve career opportunities for Malaysian women and their levels of participation in the workforce.
According to the IMF, Malaysia’s labour force participation rate for women, when compared with some of the regional economies and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average, is just above 54 per cent — low, both in absolute and relative terms.
As a comparison, the participation rate for men is about 80 per cent.
Lagarde rightly lauded the Malaysian government’s efforts to be more inclusive, noting the number of women appointed in key ministerial roles, including Yeo Bee Yin, the Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change, and new laws to protect against gender discrimination.
Nevertheless, the IMF chief’s wider economic point cannot be ignored. More must be done to improve opportunities for women in the Malaysian economy.
“The government is listening,” said Lagarde.
Now businesses must rise to the challenge.
Malaysia’s oil and gas sector, which accounts for roughly 20 per cent of gross domestic product, can and should lead the way.
Across the globe, female participation in oil and gas workforces is poor, with estimates suggesting as few as one in five workers is a woman, one of the lowest levels of any major industry.
As the oil and gas industry enters a new technologically advanced era, new opportunities to address women’s institutional lack of representation are arising. In Malaysia and around the world, the industry must grasp them.
Between 2018 and 2022, the share of work performed by humans communicating and interacting with others or performing physical and manual work is predicted to decline. During the same time frame, complex and technical work is expected to increase by eight per cent.
A more automated and tech-focused industrial landscape will heighten demand for scientists, engineers of all disciplines, as well as a variety of specialists in organisational development, information technology and digital transformation.
With the oil and gas industry in search of qualified personnel, it is only logical — and prudent — to turn to women. Female university graduates are increasingly outnumbering their male counterparts (and not just in the West).
This means there is no shortage of educated and talented young women, including at Malaysian universities, to fill these emerging roles, bringing with them fresh ideas and perspectives to an industry stymied by a lack of diversity.
But to attract the best female talent, the industry must confront its image problem among young women by demonstrating its commitment to diversity and inclusion on all fronts.
Breaking the “gas ceiling” in Malaysia and throughout the industry will, therefore, require innovative thinking and a commitment to creative initiatives by oil and gas companies. Retention is key. The industry cannot afford to lose employees with a background in and fundamental understanding of the industry.
The skills of industrial psychologists and human resource managers need to be used to determine where existing female employees can be re-trained to meet these changing roles.
Companies must offer more generous maternity leave policies, as well as implement shared parental leave schemes, and provide on-site childcare as incentives to female employees.
Flexible working and job sharing are other viable options that accommodate the realities of life for working parents, particularly mothers. Similarly, returnship or re-entry programmes, which are being initiated by forward-thinking companies to reintegrate employees who have left the industry — perhaps to have children and raise a family — and would like to re-join the workforce, provide an excellent way to attract more female talent to the industry.
Many of the most ingrained challenges are cultural. Oil and gas companies must find ways to reform workplaces to empower non-dominant employees to become more visible and more vocal. This means encouraging employees to differentiate themselves and emboldening females to be their own advocates while building support networks.
Internal networking programmes specifically for female employees to have a built-in support system are an essential starting point. Companies must seek out candidates who break the mould of the dominant culture and provide them with the resources to develop their unique attributes.
Although much needs to be done, there are promising signs that the industry is waking up to its gender representation problem.
I hope that Malaysian oil and gas leaders and decision-makers in attendance look around the room and ask themselves why more female graduates — like those Lagarde addressed in Kuala Lumpur — aren’t represented and what practical measures they can take to bring about change for the good of the industry.
There should be no doubt that an industry capable of extracting hydrocarbons from beneath the Earth’s surface has the ability to attract and retain a diverse and inclusive workforce.
As we enter the oil and gas 4.0 era, the industry must live up to the promises of that vision — and, in Malaysia, take a lead in the country’s workforce breakthrough strategy.
The writer is a journalist, qualified petroleum landman and author of Breaking the Gas Ceiling: Women in Offshore Oil and Gas, a book highlighting women’s contributions to the offshore oil and gas industry