Friday 21 Jun 2024
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The oil and gas (O&G) industry has long struggled with gender diversity, despite its importance for innovation and progress. Women remain vastly under-represented, especially in technical roles and leadership positions, making up only an average 23% of the O&G workforce — one of the lowest numbers of any major sector — and only 20% at the senior level, according to a report released by the Boston Consulting Group last September.

However, companies like Petronas are demonstrating a strong commitment to changing this narrative. It acknowledges the historical lack of women in the industry and actively works to dismantle barriers and unconscious bias. It understands that a diverse and inclusive workforce brings a wealth of talent and perspectives that can only boost an organisation’s success.

Through several initiatives, Petronas has made commendable progress. By the end of 2023, women made up 29% of the group’s total workforce and 31% of its senior leadership roles — surpassing the group’s own target of 28% by 2024 — according to senior vice-president, Petronas group human resource management Farehana Hanapiah.

“We will not stop there. We have to do a lot more. We are breaking down the roles into technical and non-technical segments, and we want to make sure that we have equal numbers of senior technical leaders from women. That is something we are focusing on,” Farehana tells The Edge in an interview.

We will not stop there. We have to do a lot more. We are breaking down the roles into technical and non-technical segments, and we want to make sure that we have equal numbers of senior technical leaders from women. That is something we are focusing on.” — Farehana Hanapiah, Petronas group human resource management senior vice-president

Starting with the basics

Breaking away from deeply entrenched norms to bring about diversity and inclusion is no easy feat. It requires a concerted effort to foster an environment where all voices are not just heard, but valued; from empowering women in leadership positions to providing a nurturing space for young talents to flourish.

The Petronas Powering Knowledge through education sponsorship alone has benefitted more than 38,000 students since its inception in 1975. The sponsorship provides equal access to quality education for exceptional students from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds, with the majority from underprivileged families.

The number of current Petronas scholars globally also increased by 43 per cent from 2022, as well as a 29 per cent increase in the number of active scholars at Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS (UTP). This positive impact, Farehana hopes, is something that will continue even after graduation, well into the working world.

“The biggest issue is the working environment. For example, [in a technical role,] you will have to stay on the oil platform for two to three weeks at a time. When you are one of the only few ladies among hundreds of workers on the platform, it can be quite daunting,” says Farehana.

Hence, Petronas has made it easier for women to take on these roles, simply by paying attention to their needs and comfort.

One of the first things it did was providing working uniforms that are better suited for women, and separating the women’s living quarters from the men.

“Now, we make sure that the female workers have access to basic facilities and accommodation that are separated from the male workers, for their comfort, freedom, and security in delivering their best at work,” she adds.

Farehana also points out how female employees in technical roles often struggle when they plan to have children or when they have to take care of their children.

Similar support is provided for those who are working in non-technical roles, she adds. Petronas is dedicated to providing flexibility for employees who need to take on parental roles, such as no overtime for pregnant employees, and support for those who have children with special needs.

“When you know your family is taken care of, you can give your best at work with peace of mind,” she says.

Leveraging technology

Interestingly, Farehana says the group has adopted artificial intelligence (AI) tools in human resource management as part of its effort to embrace diversity and inclusivity, which she believes can help to reverse the tendency for there to be lower female participation as one moves up an organisation’s hierarchy.

“When people are looking for candidates to fill up senior leadership positions, they tend to look for people they know and trust. They tend to pick leaders who look like them and talk like them. This is known as unconscious bias.

“Such unconscious bias could potentially lead to female candidates being overlooked in a male-dominant corporate world,” she says. “The AI tool could help to overcome unconscious bias, as it could identify candidates who share similar qualifications and experience.”

“Through the use of technology, we are uncovering talents that may have otherwise not been discovered, thus overcoming the limitations of human bias,” she adds.

The Petronas Leading Women Network

Launched in June 2015, the Petronas Leading Women Network (PLWN) is a manifestation of Petronas’ dedication to fostering equal opportunities for women across every echelon of the organisation.

I can attest to the benefits PLWN has brought me personally — it has not only enhanced my leadership skills but also deepened my understanding of concerns and issues in the industry.” — Marina Md Taib, Petronas senior vice-president of corporate strategy

PLWN’s main objective is to inspire and empower women, by fostering a fulfilling and enabling work environment. This is achieved through upholding professionalism, supported by a strong commitment of D&I. With a focus on providing women with diverse opportunities within a collaborative work setting, PLWN aims to enhance existing avenues for women to connect and thrive.

Marina Md Taib, the senior vice-president of corporate strategy at Petronas who is leading PLWN, says the network plays a crucial role in promoting diversity and inclusion in Petronas.

“The core mission of PLWN centers on empowering women to unlock their full potential, primarily through our comprehensive internal initiatives, particularly our mentoring programs. One such example is our collaboration with UTP, where women leaders in PETRONAS act as the mentor to guide and advise aspiring women engineering students on career growth, aiming to cultivate and sustain a talent pipeline ready to tackle the future challenges in the energy industry. This internal focus ensures we nurture our foundation, fostering a supportive environment where our women can thrive and prepare for leadership roles. Building on this solid groundwork, PLWN extends its reach externally by engaging in numerous influential forums and global conferences. Our involvement in the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and our active participation in the Women Global Leadership Conference (WGLC) in Houston stand out as prime examples. These platforms allow us to showcase our women leaders, share insights, and network with other women leaders worldwide ,” says Marina.

PLWN also actively collaborates with industry stakeholders, leveraging networks like the Malaysian Women in Energy (MyWiE), Women Leadership Foundation (WLF) and Asia School of Business (ASB),to address concerns and create more opportunities for women in the industry.MyWiE, for instance, is dedicated to advocating for the development of national policy aimed at driving D&I within the energy sector. These efforts underscore our commitment to enhancing the professional landscape for women by fostering an inclusive environment and advocating for systemic changes, says Marina.

In conjunction with International Women’s Day on March 8, PLWN partnered with the Shell Women’s Action Network (SWAN) for the inaugural Inspire Series, which focuses on discussions regarding women’s representation in the STEM — representing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — workforce. This initiative forms part of a broader endeavour to foster an inclusive culture that empowers women in leadership roles.

Still, despite PLWN’s best efforts to motivate and inspire women, Marina observes that there are persisting challenges that continue to hinder women’s participation in the energy sector. These obstacles frequently arise from their hesitation to assume larger roles, driven by concerns about their competency and lack of self confidence.

“To address these issues, PLWN prioritizes career development enhancements, developing leadership competencies among women and fostering the retention of the female workforce, with a focus on mid-career talents. We spotlight role models like Sally Helgesen through curated masterclass session, emphasizing on the importance of visible leadership and leveraging on women’s unique leadership strengths. Additionally, we engage male leaders as advocates for gender equality, underlining their critical role in championing progress,” Marina says, adding that men make up 20% of the PLWN committee.

Crucially, PLWN is not just about creating opportunities for women but also ensuring women are primed to seize these opportunities. By providing tools, resources and support, PLWN aims to elevate women’s readiness for leadership roles, underlining the belief that empowering women is not just beneficial for the individuals, but imperative for the industry’s future.

“I can attest to the benefits PLWN has brought me personally — it has not only enhanced my leadership skills but also deepened my understanding of concerns and issues in the industry,” she reflects.

Beyond gender


The chosen theme for the International Women’s Day this year was “Inspiring Inclusion”, which echoes the company’s steadfast commitment to creating environments where diverse voices are not only recognised but celebrated, where ideas are welcomed with open arms, and where collaboration is strongly encouraged.

It also goes beyond championing women or any specific gender, as inclusivity encompasses not only gender, but also background, experience, nationality, and learning ability, as Petronas believes diversity helps foster creativity and innovation.

I have found that the more differences in perspectives and experiences that we surround ourselves with, the more we can address issues and find solutions in new ways. My team members were not limited to Malaysians; one was from Switzerland and one was located in San Francisco.” — Komila Umarova, Senior manager in corporate strategy at Petronas
This inclusive approach not only enhances the quality of our innovations but also creates a workplace where every individual feels respected and motivated to contribute to our collective success.” — Vishantini Tangavaloo, Executive in project delivery and technology at Petronas
Petronas’ stance towards neurodivergent individuals is to understand your difference but still value your skills as a worker.” — Amanda Khadijah Lim Yi Wen, Product communications executive at Petronas
Communications plays a key role in bringing awareness, clarity and focus to enterprise-wide D&I efforts. Going beyond storytelling, we must also cultivate an inclusive culture where voices are heard and genuinely understood.” — Siti Azlina Abdul Latif, Senior general manager of strategic communications, group strategic relations and communications

Komila Umarova, a senior manager in corporate strategy at Petronas, testifies to this and cites as example one recent experience of working on an intense two-month project with a 10-member team during the pandemic, when everyone was working from home.

“I have found that the more differences in perspectives and experiences that we surround ourselves with, the more we can address issues and find solutions in new ways. My team members were based in various locations, not limited to Malaysia; one was from Switzerland and one was located in San Francisco.

“I would say it was the diversity of this team’s experiences that paved the way for a few new business verticals that Petronas is now pursuing to sustain our organisation in the long term. We were building on each other’s ideas, which we thoroughly debated, which led to a comprehensive, desired outcome that was supported by our management,” says Komila, as she recounts the fulfilling experience.

Vishantini Tangavaloo, a young woman working as an executive in project delivery and technology in Petronas, believes diversity at work not only encourages creativity, but also boosts morale.

She experiences this via the tailored training programmes that Petronas provides for fresh recruits to enhance their technical skills and provide mentorship opportunities. These programmes also emphasise cross-functional exposure and provide avenues for constructive feedback.

“This inclusive approach not only enhances the quality of our innovations but also creates a workplace where every individual feels respected and motivated to contribute to our collective success,” she says.

Petronas commitment to inclusivity also extends to neurodivergent individuals, which refers to one whose brain processes or learns information in a way that is not considered typical, such as a person on the autism spectrum.

A product communications executive at Petronas, Amanda Khadijah Lim Yi Wen says she is a neurodiverse individual who is treated no differently than any other worker in the group, and that everyone is held accountable for the tasks assigned to them.

“Petronas’ stance towards neurodivergent individuals is to understand your difference but still value your skills as a worker,” she says.

Having colleagues who are aware of and understand neurodivergence has also helped her to focus and perform her duties diligently, she says, especially during times when she has to collaborate with other people.

She attributes this to the group’s efforts in helping to raise awareness about neurodiversity within the workforce, such as through its Neurodiversity Centre of Excellence (NCoE) programme last year.

She suggests that neurodiverse individuals tap into their expertise and skill set without neglecting to build up interpersonal communications skills to perform well in their careers, particularly within large corporations like Petronas.

“Should your role be a more dynamic one, knowing how to brace yourself for the unexpected is a must-have mindset,” she says, as she explains how neurodiverse individuals like her tend to prefer routines.

“When I am hit by changes, I often tell myself that it is not that bad — the routine to go to the office is still the same, the computer equipment is still the same, the software is still the same, et cetera,” she says.

Meanwhile, Petronas, in addition to PWLN’s efforts, provides education sponsorships and technical training opportunities for students and those who have recently graduated through our notable learning institutions such as UTP, Institut Teknologi Petroleum PETRONAS (INSTEP), and Akademi Laut Malaysia (ALAM).

Communication is the key

Siti Azlina Abdul Latif, Senior general manager of strategic communications, group strategic relations and communications believes that Communications plays a key role in bringing awareness, clarity and focus to enterprise-wide D&I efforts. Going beyond storytelling, we must also cultivate an inclusive culture where voices are heard and genuinely understood”.

The ‘People of Petronas’ campaign was launched to feature its employees from all walks of life along with their personal journey in the organisation. This campaign was part of Petronas commitment to celebrate the diverse talents and experience across the Group.

She further added, collaboration is another cornerstone of inclusivity. Last year, the group together with the Malaysian Press Institute, organised a forum on the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion at the workplace.

She concluded, “As the journey towards D&I continues, the path ahead remains long, with more progress and initiatives needed to be undertaken”. She hopes to curate more conversations surrounding the topics of unconscious bias, cultural competency, and inclusive leadership to foster a more inclusive workplace culture.

Their story highlights the importance of a comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategy for achieving long-term success in an increasingly competitive energy landscape.

Petronas leads in fostering gender diversity, enhancing its performance and inspiring others. With its commitment to equality, Petronas charts a course towards a future where everyone can thrive, regardless of gender.

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