The oil and gas industry is entering a new, technologically advanced era defined by digital transformation. In order to meet the myriad challenges of this era, the industry must finally confront its longstanding lack of women’s representation. Boosting female participation in oil and gas workforces, where estimates suggest as few as 1 in 5 workers is a woman (one of the lowest levels of any major industry), will require innovative thinking and a commitment to creative initiatives.

Technological change is reshaping the oil and gas industry before our eyes. 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 8%.

As things stand, these changes risk compounding the problem of women’s representation in oil and gas. Workforce roles typically thought of as entailing “soft skills” – which, crucially, have been historically female-dominated – such as data-entry clerks, bookkeepers, administrative and executive secretaries, among others, are in decline.

But, the winds of technological change also provide a unique opportunity to redress gender imbalances. 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 organizational development, information technology, and digital transformation.

With the 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 to fill these emerging roles, bringing with them fresh ideas and perspectives to an industry stymied by a lack of diversity.

Breaking the “gas ceiling,” as I call it, will require thoughtful consideration on behalf of oil and gas companies. To seize the initiative, the skills of industrial psychologists and HR managers need to be utilized to determine where existing female employees can be re-trained to meet these changing roles. The industry cannot afford to lose employees with a background in and fundamental understanding of the industry.

But equally important, it must be able to attract the best, young female talent. Research has shown that the petroleum industry suffers from an image problem among younger generations of women. Technology is another historically male-dominated industry. As the technology and petroleum industries become more integrated and aligned, it is incumbent upon the oil and gas industry to promote and demonstrate its commitment to diversity and inclusion on all fronts.

Many of the key 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 female and other minority employees to be their own advocates while building support networks. Internal networking programs specifically for female employees to have a built-in support system are an essential starting point. Companies must seek out candidates who break the mold of the dominant culture and provide them with the resources to develop their unique attributes.

WorkingWomen A trader works inside a booth on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Sept. 15, 2015. Photo: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Retention is just as crucial an issue. 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. Flex-time, working remotely, and job sharing are other viable options that recognize and accommodate the realities of life for working parents, particularly mothers.

Returnship or re-entry programs 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, providing an excellent way to attract more female talent to the industry.

There are promising signs that the industry is waking up to its gender representation problem. Men in grey suits have long dominated the debates at influential oil and gas conferences, but things are changing. ADIPEC, the world’s largest oil and gas conference, which takes place each year in Abu Dhabi, has been instrumental in introducing the need for greater diversity into the heart of conversations about the industry’s future. At last year’s conference, Dr. Sultan Al-Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), announced Oil & Gas 4.0, an agenda for embracing this new era of digital and technological transformation, which identified diverse and inclusive workforces as a key component of the industry’s capacity to meet the challenges of the future. This year’s conference will dedicate panels and speakers exclusively to addressing this issue.

There is 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 era of Oil & Gas 4.0, the industry must live up to the promises of that vision.

(Rebecca Ponton is a writer, journalist and qualified petroleum landman. She is the 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.)