For Daughters Of The Oil And Gas Industry, Mothers Blazed The Trail

By Erin Douglas Houston Chronicle

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr)  Some women in the Oil and Gas Industry say having a mom in the business has been nothing but an advantage to them for the simple reason that it's just easier to cope with the pressure of being one of the few women in a room when you have a role model at home.

Houston

Xan Difede's three daughters grew up listening to her talk about ships, platforms and operations. They watched her work early mornings and long nights, hire a maid to help out and travel for days at a time. Their mom was in the oil and gas industry -- all three of them are, too.

"This is what we know and what we've been around our whole lives," said Lindsey Halmon, who works in training for Bureau Veritas Commodities' oil and petroleum division. "I don't think it was ever a discussion of, 'This is how you be successful in this industry.'"

"It was: Watch me be successful in this industry," added Meredith Hatz, who works at EOG Resources in safety and environmental regulations.

With men still accounting for more than 80 percent of workers in oil and gas extraction, daughters following mothers into the industry make up a particularly exclusive club. But these women say having mom in the business has been nothing but an advantage to them for the simple reason that it's just easier to cope with the pressure of being one of the few women in a room when you have a role model at home.

Mom knows what it's like

Mothers who blazed the trail are able to offer their daughters unique advice, mentorship and perspective of a woman that is often times sorely absent in oil and gas workplaces.

Caroline Burda, who has worked on liquified natural gas projects for the majority of her career at several companies, such as Chevron, said her mother, Barbara, who worked at Texaco, provided a lot of gender-based advice. As the younger Burda dealt with situations from a man advising her to take time off to have children because children "do better" with mothers at home, to getting sexually harassed while working offshore early in her career, her mother provided a living example of a woman who had been through it before and knew what to do. She was the person Burda could call, for anything.

"She knew exactly what was going on," Burda said, "and exactly how to handle it."

Barbara Burda was well-versed in how to navigate tough situations of being the only woman in the workplace, Caroline Burda recalled. She encouraged her daughter to brush off ill-informed opinions, stick to the facts and focus on the job, saying, "That's just one person's opinion, and that one person is not going to keep you from achieving what you want to achieve."

Her mother advised her to be decisive in her career choices, telling her that said even if there appeared to be no right decision, to choose, and make it right. That advice was valuable for Caroline throughout her career, giving here the confidence to make bold career moves.

"She's bold enough to say she didn't get it right every time, and I think that gives me the courage not to get it right every time either," said Burda, who grew up Houston and typically works out of the city.

Difede, the mother of three in oil and gas, gave similar advice to her daughters to brush off negative attitudes.. When she started her career at Jahre Shipping, which transported crude oil, she said even fewer women worked in the industry. Working as as a tanker operator, she had to give orders to much older ship captains who weren't used to taking directions from young women. But, she said, once she proved she knew what she was talking about, she gained respect.

Difede, who worked in vessel operations at various companies including the European energy company Royal Dutch Shell, later learned to play golf and hunt in order to open more doors. That's just how things worked, she said -- and still do. All her daughters have learned hunt as well.

For them, it was a way to move up in the industry. Once you realize networking takes place on the golf course, Difede said, "You make the decision to learn."

But learning to play with the boys isn't always enough. Marnie Yohemas, a supervisor in lands and right of way at the Canadian pipeline company Enbridge, grew up in the pipeline industry. At her family's mid-size oil and gas pipeline construction business in Canada, her mother, Susan, was essentially the chief operations officer. She negotiated equipment purchases, organized the crews, obtained regulatory permits, kept the books -- and had three children. Yohemas said her mom even went into labor with Marnie because she was riding in a gravel dump truck.

Despite running the family company from the kitchen room table, Yohemas said customers often couldn't accept that her mother was qualified to speak to them, and insisted on speaking to her father.

"They'd call and be really condescending," Yohemas said, but, "We would laugh about it because she's the one that actually knew about the details."

Such perceptions haven't yet been eradicated from the industry. When Yohemas does site visits, men are sometimes surprised how much she knows about piping -- she remembers once being called just a "pretty face." But she finds she's able to win them over because of her clear knowledge of the field, following the example of her mother, who demonstrated what she knew by her work and resilience.

"I think it surprises them how much I know about it," Yohemas said. "How many women earned respect by going into the field and putting on overalls? You do what you have to do to learn the business. It helps to give you credibility."

As times change With long hours and lots of travel, the energy industry isn't always family friendly. Some said they either had help taking care of the children from extended family or friends, or hired help.

Oil and gas companies, particularly larger corporations, are beginning to offer family leave, create internal networking groups for women and allow flexible work schedules. Some large companies, such as Halliburton, offer on-site day-care for working parents.

Yohemas, a single mother with two young children, said her boss is supportive and allows her to have a flexible work schedule. "Most important, she said, "is that I'm going to be available for my babies when they need me."

Difede, the mother of three women in the energy industry, founded a fuels supply company in 2014. After many years working other companies, she said, "I was afraid I would die at my desk or on a plane," without taking a shot at her dream of starting her own business.

She founded Fidelity Fuels and Specialty Products, a certified women-owned business. In the last year, she said her company has grown as customers seek women-owned companies to do business with, which she attributed partly to the "#MeToo Era."

The cultural reckoning of sexual harassment and how women are treated at work not only heightened awareness, but also put focus on supporting women- and minority-owned companies.

"I don't think you would've seen that five years ago," Difede said. "For the first time, it seems like there's more opportunity."

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