In the first of a series of articles profiling the experiences of women in the oil and gas industry, we speak to Ghazala Ali Ahmad, Lead Process Engineer for global oilfield service company, Petrofac.
Like most teenagers, Ghazala Ali Ahmad had no idea what career path lay ahead of her whilst at school. It was only when she went on to study at college that a career in engineering became a realistic prospect.
“I started to look beyond the standard, socially acceptable careers for women” explains Ghazala, “when I researched engineering, I thought that it would be ideal for me because it would challenge me as an individual; it was a male dominated environment, and I wanted to see how far I could go in the industry and if I could make a success of myself in this field.
“In the late 1980s and early 1990s there were very few Asian women that actually went to university to adopt careers in typically male-dominated professions. You had to be of a certain mind set where venturing into an unknown, non-stereotypical field would not faze you. To succeed in a career in the engineering industry, particularly as a woman, you benefit from having a resilient personality and being able to give as good as you get. You have to be quite tough and thick-skinned, regardless of gender, to be able to withstand some of the pressure that you come across both in the office and on site.
The career prospects are huge – the world is your oyster.”
“Nowadays you will find that things have changed considerably. There are a lot more women working in the industry now, which is great to see. We, as women, are working at the same level as men and achieving the same targets – if not above and beyond our own expectations. This is an industry where women can absolutely excel and achieve their goals to their full potential.”
Following a degree in chemical engineering, and a subsequent Masters in mathematics, Ghazala embarked on a career that has seen her travel abroad and work on projects across the wide spectrum of the engineering industry and for multi-national engineering companies that offered exciting opportunities.
Ghazala now works as a lead process engineer for the global oilfield services company, Petrofac, and is based in Manchester, UK.
“A typical day for me could vary significantly depending at what stage we are on a project. As Process Engineers, we are at the foundation of each project as all other disciplines in the engineering field depend on us for the initiation of the project. The client will approach us with a specification of what they need and we then translate this information on to a Process and Instrumentation diagram (P&ID) before it is handed to the individuals involved on the project.
“The P&ID will then go to instruments engineers, mechanical engineers, piping and electrical engineers, structural engineers and they will then, in conjunction with the process engineers develop their parts of scope of the project from our initial drawing. We have regular discussions with our clients as well as internally so that we ensure that deadlines and milestones are achievable and can be delivered on time.
“We go through a rigorous checking and approving process and if that process has not been adhered to then it is my responsibility to highlight the non-compliance and inform the individuals to stop, and then direct them or train them to follow the correct company procedures and working ethics.”
This is an industry where women can absolutely excel and achieve their goals.”
In an industry as vital as engineering, the impact of a widespread skills shortage is being felt acutely. Is this because the next generation of potential engineers has a negative perception of the industry?
“It’s a real problem,” agrees Ghazala, “the majority of people think ‘mechanic’ when you mention engineering. They think of a more predominant, physically demanding profession. There is a lack of understanding about what the term engineering actually means and the diversity of this profession.
“It’s not being promoted to children at schools when they are choosing subjects or career paths; I think this stems from not having the people with the correct understanding to promote this successfully to children.
“The perception must change because if children or students had the right information and spoke to individuals with engineering backgrounds and with people who have worked in the industry this would create an interest amongst young people starting to look for a career. If women engineers spoke to the young women who would consider working in the industry, then they would get a completely different and truthful background to what a career in engineering can really mean.
Ghazala continues: “I hope that in years to come the perception does change because engineers are a dying breed. We are getting older and there are no new people to take our place and drive the industry forward.
“The career prospects are huge – you can travel the world, if you want to. There is always going to be industry, there will always be a requirement for engineers – be it women or men. The opportunities really are endless but you have to go out and grab them – they won’t come to you.”
On the subject of women working in the engineering industry – and specifically oil and gas, Ghazala says that the opportunity to follow both your career and family goals are ones that are achievable in today’s industry.
“Being a woman and working as an engineer does not mean that you can’t get married or have children” states Ghazala. “Global companies have so many options for working mothers now – 20 years ago those options didn’t exist. Just because you want children doesn’t mean that you can’t have the career. You can have both. I am married and have a ten year old son and a seven year old daughter, and as well as working full-time as a Lead Process Engineer I am a full-time mum as well.
“You can achieve what you want to achieve so long as you have the mind-set to want to do it, and to reach your end goal.