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Ensuring equal opportunity

Norway quickly became a pioneer of offshore gender equality when its oil industry first took off. Now, this advance for women is regarded as self-evident.

This article was published in the magazine "Safety - status and signals 2011-2012"

All the workers in the Norwegian North Sea were originally men. Exploration drilling or oil production was seen as a male preserve – dirty, rough, physically demanding shift work. But women made their entry bit by bit, perhaps as catering personnel or as nurses on rigs or platforms. Some were also out on the deck or in other technical jobs.

The common denominator for all the females who took on a regular tour of offshore duty was that they came to workplaces built by men – for men.

With this total male dominance, nobody had thought about equal opportunities.There was no requirement to provide separate facilities for women – be they changing rooms, toilets or cabins.

“This was unacceptable,” says PSA director general Magne Ognedal. ¨

Securing gender equality offshore was one of many battles he has fought during a long career in off shore regulation.

The need to tailor the NCS for both genders was recognised at an early stage by Norwegian Petroleum Directorate (NPD), which was then responsible for offshore HSE. That brought it into direct confrontation with an industry which was heavily masculine and had very conservative attitudes, Mr Ognedal recalls.

“From a Norwegian perspective, it was natural that a workplace should be organised so that both men and women could participate. But by no means all the oil companies agreed with us.”

Mr Ognedal notes that Mobil, the American operator building Statfjord A, reacted almost with incredulity to the new design requirements for living quarters.

“So we had a fight on our hands,” he says. “But Mobil was forced to give way in the end. After that, things went pretty smoothly.”

The distinctive Norwegian demand to incorporate accommodation for both genders was groundbreaking in the petroleum sector – and yielded results. Women accounted for roughly 3.5 per cent of Norway’s total off shore workforce by 1985, which was a big share for the time.

The government produced a film on the subject that year. One of those responsible for this production – entitled The NCS – also for women – was Angela Ebbesen.

“We were a pioneering country and industry,” she recalls.

Now a PSA principal engineer, she was then an administrative officer in the section for occupational safety and the working environment at the NPD.

“Norway was an early adopter of basic rights for all,” she says. “A good Working Environment Act required workplaces to have separate toilets, showers, cabins and so forth for both genders.”

The 1985 film dealt with the role of women on the NCS, and included interviews with a number of those working there about their experience of the Norwegian oil industry. Some male managers and Norway’s equal opportunities ombudsman were also interviewed.

“Our starting point was a concern, as the HSE regulator, to ensure compliance with the Working Environment Act’s provisions on separate facilities for both genders,” Ms Ebbesen explains.

“The film sought to kill the myth that the North Sea was a harsh workplace reserved for tough men. Through interviews and images, it aimed to highlight the opportunities – also for women.”

Norway’s petroleum sector has made rapid progress since that fi lm was made almost three decades ago. And more women have joined its ranks. The female proportion of the industry’s workforce reached nine per cent in 2000. After many years of slow but steady growth, however, the curve has flattened out since then.

“During the 1970s and 1980s, the goal was to get women out to work,” says Ms Ebbesen, who has monitored these developments over a long period.

“That was part of the struggle for equal opportunities. Nobody talks about gender today. Norway’s petroleum industry is organised for diversity.”

Progress has also been made with female recruitment to jobs conventionally reserved for males, particularly in management. But the picture remains fairly traditional. Women accounted for 54 per cent of the off shore catering workforce in 2010, but for only two to three per cent in such sectors as construction and maintenance. It was 11 per cent in processing.

“Although some women are starting to become visible in male-dominated jobs, the road to a full gender balance still looks very long,” says Ms Ebbesen.

On land, women currently account for 14.5 per cent of the workforce at the eight petroleum related plants supervised by the PSA. There are twice as many of them among processing personnel as on the NCS itself, with a 22 per cent share. But women hold only seven to eight per cent of jobs in construction and maintenance.

When Statoil and Norsk Hydro’s oil and energy division merged in 2007, hopes were expressed that this would also have a positive impact on the proportion of women in management. But the outcome was that only 16 of the merged company’s 87 platform managers were female, and women held just 70 of roughly 600 management posts.

Figures from the RNNP report show that only 4.4 per cent of the offshore workforce who responded to its questionnaire- based survey in 2009 were women with management responsibility.That includes the platform managers.

“Several factors undoubtedly explain why our petroleum industry still employs so few women,” Mr Ognedal concedes.

“However, the most important conconsideration for us as the regulator is that the conditions allow everyone with the necessary competence to work in this industry.”

Over more than four decades as a petroleum producer, Norway’s offshore regulations and supervisory regime have be in constant change to address the challenges facing an ever-growing industry.

High levels of risk and huge assets have always been involved, Mr Ognedal notes. “The key consideration for both regulators and companies is to control risk to avoid undesirable incidents.”

The Norwegian model of collaboration between employers, employees and government has been developed and refined, and several well-functioning arenas established. Chaired and serviced by the PSA, these regularly bring together unions, employer organisations and the regulator to discuss safety issues.

Tools have been developed for measuring the level of risk, and new methods for monitoring and managing hazards.  But the industry continues to employ far more men than women.

“The low proportion of females means first and foremost that they’re not present in important arenas where key decisions are taken,” Mr Ognedal notes.

“Innovation and diversity are essential if the petroleum industry is to come up with new technological, operational and organisational solutions.

“We need a lot of brainy people, both male and female, to drive this sector forward while ensuring that its progress meets acceptable safety standards.”