Women Dominate Leadership at Agency Overseeing Male-Dominated Oil Industry

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By Ryan Maye Handy

Originally published in the Houston Chronicle

As an adventurous kid growing up in Conroe, Kim Corley thought she'd become a pecan farmer, inspired by the trees in her parents' yard. Then, she dreamed of working in construction, but her company of choice, Caterpillar, wouldn't take her. Eventually, fresh out of college, she went from office to office in Houston, résumé in hand, dropping in to oil and gas companies and asking for a job.

"I wanted to do heavy construction but that was a male-dominated field," Corley said. "So I decided to go into energy."

Corley today recognizes her naïveté, since the oil and gas industry was and remains overwhelmingly male. But she also appreciates a new irony.

Corley, 62, is the top staffer at the state's oil and gas regulator, the Texas Railroad Commission, meaning that when she talks, the men who inevitably crowd the room listen. And there's more: She is just one of the women who dominate the leadership at the agency.

Women occupy eight of the 15 top leadership positions - excluding the three elected commissioners - at the Railroad Commission, a particularly surprising number considering that women account for only 14 percent, globally, of the executives in the industry that the agency regulates. Most of the women had careers in the oil and gas industry before joining the Railroad Commission, working as lawyers, petroleum engineers, geologists and inspectors.

Corley, for example, worked more than 20 years in the industry, retiring two years ago as the vice president of U.S. environmental implementation at Royal Dutch Shell, where she oversaw the building of carbon capture plants in Canada, among other things. She said she had no intention of going back to work, until she was recruited to be the agency's executive director, a job that would give her another opportunity to follow a lifelong philosophy.

"My dad raised me to leave it better than you found it," said Corley, who explained that she views the commission's main mission is protecting natural resources. Her children, she noted, see her as an environmentalist.

Get it done

At the top of the commission, of course, is Christi Craddick, the chairman and only the fifth woman to serve on the 126-year-old commission. She said she considers the number of women leaders on the staff a particular accomplishment against the backdrop of an industry known as a bastion of men.

"We are looking for the best and brightest, and they happen to be women," said Craddick - who was careful to note that the commission's male staff are equally capable.

But women, she added, tend to stay out of the limelight - or get overlooked.

"Women just go get something done," she said. "They don't necessarily get the credit for it."

The disparity between the Railroad Commission and the industry is on display at the commission's biweekly meetings, when Craddick sits between her fellow commissioners, Wayne Christian and Ryan Sitton, and faces an auditorium typically filled with men in suits. Her female staffers, like Corley, stand out in nearly all-male audience.

Many of commission's women have risen through the ranks, over decades, like April Richardson, a 20-year veteran of the agency, who is now the safety director for alternative fuels, but started near the bottom reviewing inspection reports.

Despite the Railroad Commission's impressive array of women managers, the industry still lags behind other sectors, such as technology, when it comes to filling boardrooms and rigs with more women and minorities, statistics show. Women occupy only 8.2 percent of board seats in oil and gas companies, below the national average of 10.5 for all business, according to Bloomberg News.

On average, major oil and gas companies have staffs that are 20 to 30 percent women; workers in the field tend to have lower numbers, around 10 to 20 percent women, according to Accenture, a Houston-based consulting company. Since the oil downturn, diversity at the biggest oil companies has remained flat, while smaller independents have struggled to retain their ranks of women and minorities in the face of plummeting revenues.

As the industry becomes more digitized, shifting more jobs from the field into the office, and more cognizant of employees' needs - like paid parental leave - more women are seeking oil and gas jobs, said Aleek Datta, a managing director at Accenture who works with oil and gas companies. As the quality of life for oil and gas employees improve, so do the numbers of women on the job.

The Railroad Commission says it has done nothing extraordinary to attract women to the agency, other than hiring the best candidates for the job. But just focusing on hiring the most qualified candidates - a firm belief of Craddick and the other managers - does not guarantee that companies will hire more women and minorities, said Katie Mehnert, the founder of Pink Petro, an organization that advocates for diversity in the energy industry.

"There are a lot of qualified candidates out there who are women and minorities," she said. "But we tend to hire who we are familiar with."

In the energy industry, that still means mostly men, Mehnert said.

New challenges

The women at the Railroad Commission don't see themselves as exceptional, or even unusual. Many echoed Craddick's sentiment - they are there to do their jobs, and more often than not don't notice if they are the only women doing them. Stephanie Weidman, who at 30 oversees all pipeline inspectors for the state, said she has never focused on gender, even when she and a handful of other women were seriously outnumbered in her college petroleum engineering classes.

"I got to be in petroleum engineering just because I thought it was interesting," said Weidman, who has worked for the commission for 6½ years. "My calculus teacher (in high school) kind of said, 'You know, you'd make a good engineer.' "

Weidman is the youngest of the commission's managers, but many of her counterparts have worked in the oil and gas industry for decades and began their careers when the industry was even less inclusive than it is today.

She is also the only engineer among a group of managers that includes an environmental lawyer, Lori Wrotenbery, head of the agency's oil and gas division; a geologist, Leslie Savage, who oversees permits for underground injection; Stacie Fowler, the government relations director; and three women, Richardson, Kari French and Jessica Byrne, all of whom spent years working for gas and propane companies.

Their backgrounds are different, but they all crave jobs that challenge them and push the limits of their knowledge. Savage, who is 60 and passionate about geology, just started overseeing groups of engineers - a field that is not her expertise and requires a great bit of studying. Byrne, 38, has a background in human resources but has been learning to follow the agency's budget process.

Now, she's fascinated with the Legislature and she found herself watching committee meetings, just for fun.

Like Corley, French, the oversight and safety director, retired from a job in the industry, but was lured back to work by a chance to change careers. After French retired from OneOk, a Tulsa natural gas liquids company, she was bored and intrigued by looking at the gas business from a regulator's perspective.

"One of the things I do enjoy is trying something new," said French, who is 60 and has been at the commission for nearly three years. "I had to adapt, because even though it's the same area, it's looking at it from a different perspective, and I'm really enjoying that too."

Selling opportunity

While the commission has made strides in hiring women - who make up 40 percent of the agency's overall staff - Corley is already concerned about replacing the current group of women leaders, most of whom are at or near retirement age. The agency's greatest challenge, as she sees it, is recruiting younger employees in the face of stiff competition from the benefits and pay offered by the oil and gas industry.

Corley says the commission's best asset is upward mobility - the chance to work in many different fields and jobs all within one agency, as many of her managers have done. Another selling point: quality of life.

"We're never going to compete with industry on salaries," she said. "But we have a very meaningful proposition in terms of work-life balance, in terms of doing interesting work, so what we are trying to create is an environment that is very inviting to people."

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