Magali… she’s got some!

My TEDx on December 3rd  started like this: “Magali, she’s the only boss we’ve had that had balls”

Good start.

I was referring the words used by some old members of my team – from the center I worked in 15 years ago – to describe me.

Except that… I’d been told that before!

One time, young engineer in Nigeria, we’ve been dealing with technicians on strike for weeks. We were going on a mission, two engineers to replace the three technicians – we were exhausted, but management wasn’t giving up. One day, we were in the base. I was the only woman. And we all agreed that we should go talk to the bosses about our tiredness and how desperately the situation had to change – they all stare at me and tell me, as one man: “Magali, you’re the only one with balls here – you should go!

In the dictionary, “having some” is defined as such: “being brave, having audacity, character, being energetic; having the courage to”

Therefore, I decided that being told that was quite a compliment. Because to me, above anything else, this expression means having the courage to question the established order. Which I always try to do. That’s how I worked in Nigeria on an oil rig at the age on 22, at a time where they weren’t hiring women.

I must admit, I also thought it was a nice way to introduce myself and draw the public’s attention during the TEDx. Impertinence is most likely one of the qualities that have allowed me to survive and progress in a very masculine world. After all, I don’t think the word “balls” is often used on stage – especially by a woman.

But although I appreciate the “compliment”, I don’t think that it makes me a man. And I’m not sure I like being defined by masculine attributes.

Yet, based on years of observation, there’s no shortage of women who’ve got some – maybe it’s because I work in an environment that is mainly masculine and has so few women that we notice them. But in general, most women I’ve worked with lacked neither courage, nor audacity, nor character.  

So, maybe it would be time to rethink this expression. Because words matter. Because this expression can be taken with humor, but the truth is that when a woman is successful, we grant her male attributes.

However, when we say that mixed teams are more performing than teams where only one sex is represented, it’s only true if we have a true diversity and if women behave the way they want to, without trying to imitate men’s management style. They do it too often – and it’s understandable – to try and fit in without causing chaos.

So it would be good to find an equivalent expression for women – and since we don’t have to stay at the genital level, I wouldn’t advise a female equivalent (which I have, I must admit, used a number of times, but more for the pleasure of seeing my interlocutors’ faces than by personal belief).

So, next time you meet a woman who’s got some… tell her she’s got some… courage, audacity, or character.

To quota or not to quota, that is the question?

When I started this blog, I knew that one day I’d have to address a topic slightly more controversial than the ones treated until now. The day has come, and we’re going to talk about the very contentious subject of quotas! Indeed, although I’ve been wanting to talk about it for some time, I pushed it back as much as I could to avoid potential harsh criticism. Only recently I found an article by the amazing Isabella Lenarduzzi covering the question « Quotas are a medicine for an ill society ». It’s fate, I can’t avoid it any longer,this article has to be written.

She talks about Belgium, where the laws are different than in France, but the problems are the same. She mentions the BNB and the low number of women in governing bodies.

But the true purpose of the article is to ask the question that everyone wonders deep down when talking about quotas. As Isabella said so well« « Doesn’t this quota system have a humiliating aspect for women,named because they’re women and not necessarily because of their skills? »Humiliating, no. Stigmatizing, yes. I know what I’m talking about: in many panels, I’m often the female-quota. Without the quotas, I probably wouldn’t be invited. Quotas are a medicine for a sick society. A society suffering from the“entre-soi”, from mimicry.

Do I agree with Isabella? Am I in favor or no of quotas? I won’t keep the mystery alive much longer, I’ll admit it right away – I’m for quotas – entirely, 1000%pro-quotas, all the while dreaming that one day we’ll alleviate their importance.

In my first article, I was talking about how I was recruited by Schlumberger at a time where they weren’t hiring women. A few years later, a rule of parity was implemented. By the way, the origin of this change isn’t anecdotal. Indeed, the CEO’s daughter, who had just graduated, complained to her dad about the sexism she encountered during her job search. Her dad, of course, was angered by such discrimination. However, he wondered “what about the company I manage?” After looking into it, he was surprised to find out that less of 1% of the field recruits were women! He decided to change that number as soon as possible, and as he was an “action-man”, he immediately established recruitment quotas.

One argument from people against quotas is: does that mean they only hire women because they’re women? Yes and no. Yes, they’re partly recruited for that –positive discrimination, but also and above all because they have the required skills. A recruiter needs to do his job, which is to hire the best possible candidate for the job, regardless of sex. A quota won’t be a good enough reason to hire someone who doesn’t meet the requirements, as they’ll just become a source of problems for their manager, who would probably come back and yell at the recruiter. The recruiter would not keep his job very long! However, there’s no shortage of young ladies graduates that are both motivated and qualified! Why not turn towards them?

So,quotas, what do they change? It simply forces companies who aren’t necessarily known for their parity to implement a policy to attract women. When we ask little 8-year old what they want to do when she grows up, very few answer“field engineer on an oil rig”. Therefore, instead of trying to dismiss female applicants to avoid the hassle, as they did with me back in 1989, recruiters need to explain to them why they’re made for the job. To become more attractive, a few methods exist. First, saying loud and clear, through different campaigns, that women are welcome. Then, inviting pioneers or senior women to schools, conferences, etc. to attest the fact that it’s an amazing job opened to all. For instance, with their quota policy, Schlumberger’s recruiting of women field engineers increased to 15% in about 10 years, and to about 30%after 20 years.

And when it comes to promoting an employee? Same thing. Once again, and I say it often, companies aren’t going to name “female – flowerpots” because there’s a required performance level to reach and the only way to do that is to promote the most competent person for the job, regardless of gender. Quotas are simply going to oblige them to go and find the infamous “talented – quiet” women that I often talk about. They’re women that aren’t in the limelight or don’t dare to apply for a job that they want even though they’re perfectly qualified for the position. It’ll allow them to wonder “the five potential replacements for this position are all men, maybe I’m missing out on a qualified woman?” Of course, a male might be picked over his female counterpart, and if he’s more competent,it’s completely normal! However, quotas force managers to ask themselves if they should put a woman at such or such job. And it prevents this cycle to start again, where male managers are replaced by similar profiles, male as well, creating a vicious mechanism where a woman never seems to fit in.

We don’t have a choice. If we want to disrupt codes and conventions and we really want things to move forward, then so-called “male” industries need to hire more women. And the only way to see the curve evolve is by giving quantitative goals to stakeholders.

But women themselves are against quotas? Yes,indeed, I hear female friends say: I don’t want to be a female quota. But I don’t believe it – for the reasons mentioned above. And when a woman truly believes it, that means that the destabilization technique of some of her male colleagues, who don’t see this feminization with a good eye, is working well.

And yes, if I get asked the question, of course I’ve had some jobs because I’m a woman. Or, at least, it’s the case with my current job. My boss wanted a woman to kill two birds with one stone – have an expert in the field while feminizing his management line, therefore bringing in a role model for his diversity plan. Does this make my action less credible?Absolutely not. It compensates for all the jobs that me or others didn’t get because of gender.

In conclusion, to come back to Isabella’s article“Quotas are a medicine for an ill society” – and like every medicine, it’s something we would like to eradicate. A medicine that the industry needs to keep taking until it’s properly treated. The day the number of women recruited in different industries will be sufficient (I know, we could add a chapter on the definition of “sufficient”, but today I leave that up to you) – that day,everyone, me first, will be very glad to stop quotas!

My first steps on a platform – part two

I was telling you in a previous article about my first steps on a platform, explaining the little hassles I faced. Today, I would like to discuss with you the notion of human relations. As you can imagine, being the only woman amongst 80 men wasn’t always simple.

During the first trips, I stay in the shadow of my tutor. I try to remain unnoticed, I make myself as small and possible and don’t go anywhere without him.

Being in training, I am not sure I understand what is happening around me, which doesn’t help me to assert myself. I’m not ready for the slightest confrontation; I don’t feel armed for that.

Nevertheless, my skillset expands rapidly. I become increasingly comfortable and start to gain in confidence.

And then one day, my tutor is called urgently on another mission. Ours isn’t finished, but what is left is easy enough for me to take over the project. There I am, alone for the first time.

A few minutes after his departure, while the helicopter is still in sight, the phone of our work unit rings. A voice, obviously a man’s, tells me that he’d like to get to know me better. My answer is icy : « this phone call is a mistake and I will forget it. But if you call me again, I will file a complaint against you to the head of the platform. »

You might be wondering, why such a violent reaction to this request ? Because this innocent request occurs in the middle of the sea, and I’m the only woman on board. I need to establish the rules from the start. And what might come off as a nice introduction in a normal environment cannot be allowed on a rig.

Thankfully, positioning myself from the first day was enough to build my reputation and no-one bothered me from that day on.

What happens if you don’t react like that? Actually it happened when a young intern joined us. She was much more polite than me, so she quickly became overwhelmed with requests of all kinds. Once again, nothing aggressive or mean, but it made her very uncomfortable and I had to intervene to make it stop.

A first clarification from the beginning is enough. Once the rules are established, it becomes possible to have friendly relations with colleagues, very nice indeed, because any kind of ambiguity has vanished. Again, I’m talking about an extreme environment. A woman who works in an environment that is almost exclusively male often understands the rules of the game as a result of an unpleasant experience. To avoid that, it is better to be firm from the start. Observe for a while, step-up and don’t let ordinary sexism shake you.

A few weeks later, once my training period is over, my first mission begins. It is a disaster. 30 years ago, we were constantly juggling with tools that take measurements at the bottom of the well, tickling the limits of that technology (> 120 degrees…etc.). Breakdowns can happen and our formation teaches us how to deal with them. My first solo job… and my first failure. This is a rather minor one, which doesn’t affect the hydrocarbon reservoir area, and therefore has no real impact. However, I submit a file with inconsistent results and erratic measures. The client, angry, seizes that opportunity to try and switch engineers to get « rid » of me. Long story short, he’s not willing to do me any favors and is certainly not ready to accept the inconveniences resulting from my inexperience. Having a woman on board is already complicated to manage, so he doesn’t tolerate any mistakes on her part.

I haven’t often been confronted to this kind of sexism, which requires women to be better than men and which doesn’t forgive anything. My boss supports me and I return to the same platform shortly after. This time, the mission runs smoothly – so much so that the client later asked my boss not to replace me. Once I had been accepted, he started appreciating what this feminine presence was bringing to the overall work atmosphere.

The first steps are difficult, to better walk the next ones.