Veena Mendez: forging new pathways for women in oil and gas

Growing up in Dubai surrounded by the booming oil and gas industry, Veena Mendez’s career path was almost certain from the moment she could read or watch the daily news.

Some years and a few sea-changes later, her rise to team leader at Chevron Australia is galvanising female interest in the oil and gas sector – one of the country’s most notoriously male-dominated industries.

“The oil and gas boom was all around me – in the media, in the spotlight. So establishing a career path in that industry was quite natural for me as a young girl,” she says.

Ms Mendez recalls her early days working in the Middle East’s energy industry as being explicitly male dominated. “It’s a different culture there.”

But when she moved to Australia more than a decade ago, she says there wasn’t too much difference when it came to the workplace.

“My parents gave us all the freedoms we wanted as children, and taught us all the values of doing the right thing. But they also taught us not to do something just because someone says you should,” Ms Mendez told Gas Today.

“You should challenge it and it should make sense to you. And that has played in my mind everywhere I have gone.”


Subjects to STEM diversity in oil and gas

Australia’s oil and gas sector has long been a boy’s club. From top to bottom, CEOs to engineers to labourers, the hierarchy in the oil and gas sector is dominated by men.

In 2012 the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association estimated just 13 per cent of the oil and gas workforce was made up of women – almost four times less the Australia’s national average of women in the workplace of 46 per cent.

And since then, signs of a more diversified workplace have not been forthcoming. Data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency published last year shows women make up just 24 per cent of jobs in the gas, electricity and water services industries while in the mining sector, that figure drops to about 14 per cent.

More recently still, Engineers Australia’s December 2014 assessment on the state of the industry shows that there are almost four times more male resources engineers operating than women.

But the daunting figures are not what prompted Ms Mendez to first start Women in Oil and Gas Australia (WIOG) – a group dedicated to encouraging young females to explore careers in the sector.

Ms Mendez says it all starts with encouraging young girls at high school level to take up science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

“Increasing our presence in schools has seen more and more girls taking up those STEM subjects at high school and increase the pool of women qualified to work in energy, technology, construction, and oil and gas. Definitely through doing those subjects they will be able to inspire others to take the same leap because they will probably be the role models one day too,” Ms Mendez says.


We need more women in the pipeline

Ms Mendez’s career has seen her work for some of the biggest players in Australia and sit on the board of the Zonta House Women’s Refuge and the Society of Petroleum Engineers WA.

This combination of leadership roles has given her a unique perspective on how companies can better accommodate females in the workplace and foster their talents.

A mix of services and flexibilities to accommodate women who juggle primary caregiver responsibilities, and encouraging women’s confidence in the workplace are two key areas that Australian oil and gas firms should consider when approaching the gender equality issue.

“Obviously many women take time off for maternity leave. And what we have realised is that for women it is not that there is a glass ceiling or a sticky floor with regards to career prospects,” Ms Mendez says.

“In actual fact, it is more that there is a leaking pipeline. We find many women exit the workforce for maternity leave and essentially fall out of their careers.”


Building confidence careers

But at the very centre of the gender disparity debate is the issue of women’s confidence and ability to speak out about their achievements and be open about their ambitions, according to Ms Mendez.

This issue was highlighted by the Australian Business Council in 2013 when it stated that while women are equally as ambitious as men, they are “less deliberate” when seeking opportunities for career progression.

Consequently, the council called on Australian companies to implement planning discussions with women early in their careers to identify their aspirations.

“Women generally do not market their work,” Ms Mendez says.

“Definitely organisations do have diversity plans and do try to promote diversity from different aspects. But I do think it is the small things that are making big impact. Things such as increasing a women’s self-confidence is not really seen as an issue.”

Now with a daughter of her own, Ms Mendez is keen to dismantle the barriers that in the past have held women back from extending their careers in the oil and gas industry. And the very thought that any industry is “male dominated” is the first barrier that should be dispelled.

“The thing that is holding us back is firstly thinking that anything is just male orientated,” she says.

“That in itself could be one of the reasons for where we are today.”

Veena Mendez has been nominated for the 2015 Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence Awards.

WIOG has pioneered a structured mentoring facilitation program with a difference – mentees are specifically matched with high profile mentors within the oil and gas industry that are within streams that mentees are currently in or are working towards. Demand for this program has outstripped available places, bringing forward plans for the second series of this program. For more information about Women in Oil and Gas Australia visit www.womeninoilandgas.com.au

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