A force of nature

Women in lubricants data sector

With women gaining an increasingly high profile in the Lubricants Industry, journalist Peter Brill spent an afternoon with OATS’ female team members.

As a journalist, the prospect of being confronted by six fearsome intellects - two doctors of Astrophysics, two Masters level IT graduates, a former Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) official and investment banker, and a senior telecoms specialist – is both daunting and exciting.

The fact that all six are women should be irrelevant but, given the focus of the conversation on women in the lubricants industry, it is topical.  That all of them work for OATS is testament to the level of expertise and resource the Swindon-based organisation has been able to attract over the past 10 years.

Background building blocks

In exploring their varied backgrounds, it became evident that a passion for data is a common thread. Contract Manager, Lisa Pontin, has been with OATS for 10 years, having worked previously for the FCO and an investment bank in the emerging market sector. Her global business and currency experience is proving invaluable as OATS’ contract negotiator.      

Senior Data Scientist Magda Vasta, and Customer Success Manager Loredana (Lory) Lovisi, share similar backgrounds. Both from Italy and both with PhDs in Astrophysics, they moved from the academic to corporate world relatively quickly. As Magda puts it: “I joined OATS seven years ago because I wanted to just work globally, rather than on the whole galaxy.”

Product Manager for Retail and Cataloguing, Sam Russo, was the first female member of her family to attend university, with her Masters in IT set for completion later this year.  Although her degree is in fine arts, sculpture and ceramics, her passion for drag racing and the aftermarket car scene (“the Fast and Furious stuff”) steered her career towards autoparts and, in particular, engine oils.  Although having joined OATS just three days before our meeting, her enthusiasm for the sector is obvious.

After moving to the UK from Beijing some 15 years ago, OATS’ Technical Consultant for China and Asia, Jane Zhu, is now applying the knowledge she gained as a lecturer in Discrete Mathematics and communications networks – a subject new to China when she began in the mid-80s. More than 10 years’ experience in software programming eventually led her to OATS’ door.

Finally, Customer Success Consultant Katy Higgins career started with an Apprentice in Business Administration – focusing on Project Management plus elements of Health and Safety - before moving to telecoms engineering building mobile phone masts. A spell in Australia and several PRINCE2 courses later, she joined OATS.

A matter of gender or culture?

Arguably the most outspoken of the group, Sam summed up the general consensus regarding women in the lubricants industry: “If you want to have equality, then you shouldn’t need to have a conversation specifically about women in the industry at all!” However, Lory acknowledged a more nuanced debate: “There are also cultural ‘norms’ in certain regions where I am often trying to negotiate – in some cases, women can’t be involved in negotiation at all. It depends very much on the country and company you are talking to and the individuals’ roles.”

The culture of the diplomatic sector influenced Lisa’s experience: “When I joined the FCO, I was working with some very talented, independently-minded individuals. My first boss had spent most of her diplomatic career in the Soviet Union, before her abrupt departure following Moscow’s retaliation for the UK’s expulsion of 105 Russian ‘diplomats’. However, there were very few women in senior positions, with Pauline Neville-Jones, now Baroness, being one of the exceptions.  The FCO and investment banking were generally male dominated, although the investment bank I worked for was Dutch so there was more diversity, both in terms of gender and nationality.”   

While all of them readily offered real-life examples of inequality and prejudice, they also recognised many successful women, particularly amongst the oil majors. Shell’s Tamara Burkholder and Valvoline’s Kim Oppenheimer were influencers Sam mentioned that are making an impact in the industry.  Chevron and other major hard part companies in North America’s data sector also show trends of ‘powerhouse’ women commanding a meeting room.

According to Sam: “Women in the industry have a passion for it. It's not so much the jobs aren't available, it's that there aren't so many that are passionate enough to apply for them.” Lory agrees: “Every time you need to have a conversation with women in the majors they are tougher than their male counterparts.  In my experience, women have historically been less interested technical roles, often preferring to take a degree in marketing and that's how they end up in the oil industry.”

Magda’s background would indicate that she certainly has no problem ‘mixing it’ with the men. “I was the first female women referee in Sardinia.  They certainly had no problem in telling what they thought. My nose is this shape because I was punched in the nose at the age of 15 refereeing 21-year olds!” Nowadays her approach is more cerebral: “I don't like direct intervention; I’ll sit back and wait for men to drown in their own beliefs and then at some point, when they don't know what they're talking about, I'll show them the information!”

Nature versus nurture

Each of the women has developed a mindset and clear understanding of how best to work in an industry that is still predominantly male-led.  “In China men and women all work,” Jane states.  “Although more men still have a higher rank in some Chinese industries, they certainly respect women at all levels.  I know it's harder for women, but some of my Chinese-based classmates are now in high ranking positions.”

Lory stated: “You have a genuine cross-section of roles sat around this table.  There has had to be a change in mindset to focus on role and the skills required, rather than gender.  It comes back to the question of nature versus nurture. It doesn't mean we can't do the kind of physical jobs more usually undertaken by men, but understanding our skill sets and strengths around communication and organisation offers other opportunities. You can't ignore physics.”

Katy’s experience leads her to question whether work versus academia also plays a part. “Taking the Apprenticeship route has, in some cases, given me an advantage over people of same age that have gone to university. I’ve still had to do the studying in a work environment and put in long hours without holidays.  But I believe I’ve gained a wider skillset based on both theoretical and practical experience as a result. Project management, in particular, is all based on what you’ve done so far and projects you’ve worked on”

A positive evolution

When asked about the future of the lubricants industry in general, and female influence in particular, the OATS team is generally positive, although there is some disagreement about the speed of change.

According to Jane: “In both the automotive and lubes sectors, clean air is going to be critical, as evidenced by China 6 enforcement from this year along with tighter European and US legislation.  There will definitely be greater impact from EVs.”

Katy feels radical change is less imminent.  “It’s going to be a longer future,” Katy comments. “I don’t think oil demand will disappear in our lifetime, or even our children’s lifetime. Giant plant equipment or long-haul aircraft are not going to be electric any time soon.” Sam agrees: “Oil is not going anywhere, it’s just going to evolve.”

As far as the role women will play in this evolution, Lisa has already seen considerable change, not just in the industry but in OATS itself. “I’m certainly thinking ahead to when my daughter is in the workplace.  She, unlike me, will be able to take certain things for granted now that didn’t exist when I first started working. Like not being defined by her gender. OATS itself has changed over recent years, with the appointment of women to key roles and we have a balanced management team; very positive in a relatively small team.” Lisa's views resonate with comments made by panel members at the recent UKLA Women in the Lubricants Industry Conference; Lubrizol's Alison Fisher stating: "Diversity is what we already have, but we need inclusion. We have diverse workforces, [but] inclusion is what you then do with them."  

According to Lory the evolution of the lubes industry is creating positive opportunities for women:  “If you relate this to women's roles, the industry is seeking greater insight and information more than in the past which is, therefore, opening up the roles for data analysts and other roles where women are more successful.  This in turn is likely to increase the presence of women in the future.”

A final comment from Magda demonstrates that she hasn’t entirely lost her combative edge: “There shouldn't be a difference between men and women in the industry.  We actually want to be treated equally, rather than sensitively, although there should be sensitivity for everyone - men or women. I think positive discrimination is ridiculous; perhaps we should encourage a separate discussion asking men their views about women in the industry!”

Watch this space.