IWD 2021: Interview with Emeliana Rice-Oxley

The PETRONAS VP Exploration shares her own journey from scholarship to leadership and reflects on PETRONAS’ efforts to drive gender parity in the workforce.

Emeliana Rice-Oxley has been VP, Exploration in Upstream Business PETRONAS since April 2014. She holds a BSc in Geology from the University of South Carolina, USA, and is also a graduate of the Advanced Management Program from the Harvard Business School. The business transformation of PETRONAS Exploration and her push for gender equality earned her the recognition of 2019 Female Executive of the Year and 2020 Global Influencers 275 List by the Asia Pacific Energy Assembly and Women’s Energy Council, respectively.

What drew you to a career in the traditionally male-dominated energy sector?
I wish I had an interesting tale to tell about this, but the truth is, there was never a plan to join the oil and gas industry. My childhood ambition was to be a doctor. I was, however, very fortunate to be awarded a scholarship by PETRONAS to study in the US as soon as I completed the equivalent of the GCE-O level.  The catch, however, was that I had to choose an energy-related subject and not medicine.
You may think it would be a tough decision for me to make, but I quickly jumped on the offer.   After discussing a few options, we landed on geology and off I went to the US.  I realised, much later of course, how lucky I was because medicine wasn’t truly my ambition.  I was merely trying to live my dad’s dream.  Doing geology in the US under PETRONAS’ scholarship was the first step towards my entry into the energy industry. I did not have any qualms about it being male-dominated and I am happy to say that I have enjoyed every moment of being a part of it.
Tell us about your leadership style.
The feedback I received from the people I work with best describes my leadership style because it is how they experience me.  In PETRONAS, our culture of Tell Me means I receive a lot of feedback because we seek, we give and act positively on feedback.  There is one piece of feedback that encapsulates the experience I want to create: “You are a leader who is always on top of things, organised and firm. You do not tolerate nonsense, yet you have a gentle and compassionate side which is absolutely wonderful”. I take this as a short description of my leadership style; I know my stuff and have high standards and expectations. I'm firm but fair and I care about people.
How do you think COVID-19 has impacted gender diversity in oil and gas?
According to McKinsey Global Institute 2020, in general, women’s jobs are found to be 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s jobs, with women accounting for 54% of the overall job losses.
The challenges of the pandemic disproportionately affect women, who, regardless of their seniority, are more likely to fulfil the roles of being the housekeeper, and if married with kids, the babysitter, teacher and/or caregiver at home.  For some working mothers, juggling work and home life can be a real challenge.  Unless there is empathy and support on the work front from leaders and peers, performance and well-being can be impacted.  There is also the challenge of visibility, since women make up only 1/3 of the workforce, with the number decreasing with seniority.  In a world where physical interaction is limited and virtual meeting is the norm, the challenge to be visible is greater so women need to speak up to be seen and not overlooked.
COVID-19 brings with it some positive side-effects – the realisation and respect of the role women play in managing their career and taking care of their families as spouses. Bosses who are also spouses themselves get to witness first-hand, since everyone is stuck at home, the juggling act women must undertake every day.  This experience can help minimise the unconscious bias placed upon women where they tend to be perceived to be less ambitious and unable to manage or progress their career because of family commitments.
In a recent Women in Energy Global survey by NES Fircroft (October 2020), when queried on their desirable working benefits, 57% and 47% of women chose “flexible working options” and “remote working opportunities”, respectively.  These work options are now more likely to become reality, as the industry responds to the COVID-19 crisis and new ways of working.  In the same survey, “working on solutions to meet evolving energy demands” and “variety of projects” are what excite women most about the industry. This is interesting given the global move towards an energy transition. Companies that want to be part of this sustainable energy future need to retain their best talent post-pandemic and therefore must put diversity and inclusion at the forefront of their strategies.
Globally, why do so many women still seem to struggle to make it past middle management to reach senior leadership roles – particularly in the energy sector?
There are many reasons that contribute to this struggle and each company needs to understand the specific reasons for drop-offs in female participation and create specific solutions to address them.  There are, however, key areas that are common and relevant across the board.  First, there is a smaller pool of women in the energy sector to begin with (32%, EIA 2020, McKinsey 2019).  Second, the percentage of women declines, just like men, but at a faster rate for women than in other industries.  Third, the rate at which women get promoted at any level is lower than that of men.  I believe the combination of these challenges contribute to the struggle for promotion for women and the lower number of women in middle management that can progress further, especially in technical and field roles.
We can attract a larger female talent pool at entry level by making the energy sector a rewarding career for women, but we need to retain and develop the few women we manage to attract.  We must have a conducive work environment that enables women to thrive and grow, supported by policies and systems that provide equal opportunities for women, so they don’t drop off along the way.  Depending on their role, providing front-line, operational experience is especially important as it can affect women’s chances of promotion later. Women with family may find early exposure to operations challenging as it may coincide with starting said family. 
Regardless of whether a woman is single or married, takes on operational or office-based functional roles and despite great efforts by companies to create a gender inclusive workplace, many studies show that the rate of promotion for women is lower than that of men. One of the underlying culprits is unconscious bias, which affects how women are perceived and subsequently impacts decisions about their performance, mobility and promotion. Succession planning, therefore, needs to be thoroughly outlined to present equal opportunities and recognition for women and to step away from the stereotypical biases of gendered career paths – that women are more suited for roles in communications, human resources and support roles. Leaders will have to walk the talk and make commitments to D&I by addressing this as one of the top business priorities and inculcating a culture of “conscious inclusion” via building the desire, insight and capacity of their people to make decisions.
In 2015, PETRONAS established the PETRONAS Leading Women Network (PLWN) to inspire and motivate women to grow their passion and professionalism while delivering consistent high performance with confidence. Supported by the D&I policy, PLWN advocates for an inspired female workforce with strong female leadership presence that will create diversity in leadership and business thinking in PETRONAS and provide an avenue to grow women’s representation in senior leadership roles.
How is PETRONAS working to attract the best young – especially female – talent to work in oil and gas?
PETRONAS has provided scholarships to over 36,000 deserving students and spent USD 800 million over the past four decades because we believe in the importance of education and a diverse workforce.  We complement this with our outreach programmes to schools and universities. Through this effort, we are able to encourage students to take up STEM subjects and share the significant and positive but under-told contributions that the oil and gas industry brings to the economic growth and societal needs of the world.  
Over the last decade, we have also built a persuasive narrative around female participation in improving the gender-parity of the future energy workforce.  As part of this, we offer scholarships to study at Universiti Teknologi Petronas or abroad. We get to attract the best, diverse young talents and bring them into PETRONAS. It is, however, not enough to attract only. We need to retain these great talents and we believe our track record in taking care and developing our talents speaks volumes.  These become our pull factor. We have policies and systems in place that provide equal opportunities for women and a conducive work environment where gender diversity and inclusion is a business priority.  Over the last few years, we have been recognised as one of the most attractive employers in Malaysia. I am also pleased to share that our intake of female recruits has increased from 32% to 37 % over the last 4 years.  The number of women in our senior leadership positions has also increased from 11% to 19% over the last 3 years
Linked to this, what is the number one characteristic you look for in new hires?
Passion and purpose – the simple reason why we do what we do to have a greater impact on society and the world at large.  When a talent has a clear purpose, he or she will be fueled with passion, motivated to strive for excellence even when the going gets tough.  Purpose provides the talent with the courage and resilience to be curious and do things differently, and to constantly explore ways to innovate and strive for excellence.
These characteristics are very much aligned to the PETRONAS Purpose that aims to connect every individual within the organisation with a string of 12 words: “A progressive energy and solutions partner enriching lives for a sustainable future”.
Throughout our 47 years of existence, PETRONAS has always been passionate about striving towards a better future, delivering progress to the nations and communities where we operate, people we partner, customers we serve with the ultimate aim of helping individuals grow to their fullest potential. We believe that when everyone is “Passionate about Progress”, what “could be” becomes “what is”.

Are you interested in getting involved in the D&I conversation in the oil and gas sector? Join AOW Accelerates: Diversity & Inclusion at AOW 2021. Register here.

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