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June 17, 2019

BP’s Tamara Holmgren on women in oil and gas

Tamara Holmgren is BP’s projects and modifications manager for the eastern hemisphere, where she manages teams from Angola to Oman. She has been a passionate advocate of women in the oil and gas industry, being named the 2015 outstanding woman in oil and gas engineering by the European Women in Construction and Engineering awards. She spoke to Molly Lempriere about her career in oil and gas, and why more women should look for jobs in the industry.

By Molly Lempriere

Molly Lempriere: Could you tell me what attracted you to work in the oil and gas industry?

Tamara Holmgren: I’d always been interested in building and the built environment, and when I went for [an apprenticeship] interview not knowing much about the oil and gas industry, I saw all these pictures up on the walls, of these amazing structures and just thought, “wow, that looks really exciting”. And the fact that I was going to go on this structured training programme where I was going to be able to extend my learning, and have a really good career path, it just felt like it was a win-win situation for me.

ML: Were there challenges after you started the apprenticeship?

TH: The first year that we did was at Richmond Technical College, and it was me and 60 boys, and you can imagine; we were teenagers at that time, and I was the only girl, so it was a bit, “what’s she doing here?”, “engineering is for boys”, and nobody would really talk to me at first because I wasn’t interested in playing football at lunchtime.

So it was a challenge to start with, and I felt quite alienated, although as I went through I actually really loved what I was doing. It was really exciting and fun, and I was making things, we were doing welding, workshop practice and learning all the practical things that you need to understand as an engineer so that you can design things.

ML: As you moved on through the oil and gas industry, did you ever have female role models?

TH: Female role models have been quite limited, and I think that is an area where the industry has been lacking. I have to say it’s a lot better now and I know in BP we have more female role models, and our aim is for women to represent at least 25% of group leaders by 2020. But throughout my career prior to BP it has been limited; there was one senior female project manager when I was in an engineering contractor’s office, but that was one.

BP’s Clair Ridge platform in the North Sea. Credit: BP

ML: Could you tell me a little bit about what you do now? What’s your day-to-day like?

TH: I look after the eastern hemisphere of assets operated by BP in the Upstream, so it would be Aberdeen, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, Oman, Angola and Malaysia.

I was lucky enough to go out to the Clair platform last year; I flew out by helicopter which was really exciting, to see the coal-face of engineering. I also went out to Greater Plutonio, which is an FPSO [floating production, storage and offloading] facility, and I went out and stayed for a week and came to really understand how to really help the people working out there on those assets.

On a day-to-day basis I could either be working in Sunbury in a business suit, which I know a lot of people don’t consider is what an engineer does. But a lot of engineering is not heavy engineering and I think that’s somewhere where the industry can suffer sometimes, because actually the majority of engineering is office-based so I spend a lot of my time in a suit in Sunbury working with others and in meetings.

ML: Do you think people have unfair expectations about what being an engineer in the oil and gas industry is like?

TH: When you talk to young people and you talk about engineers, they think it’s someone who fixes their washing machine. When you talk about the oil and gas industry, when I talk to them I say that I work for BP they think I work at a petrol station. And of course that is part of what BP does but there’s a whole other spectrum, from the extraction side to the processing until it comes out at the petrol station. So I spend a lot of time explaining exactly what BP does and how we do it.

I do feel that many people don’t know what the oil and gas industry does and actually the wide range of jobs that they can do if they go into it. There’s something like 40,000 jobs [that] are needed in the industry by 2035 just to satisfy the demand that we have now, and the jobs are in all sorts of aspects; it’s not just heavy engineering, it could be robotics or data science, material science, or nanotechnology.

ML: Do you have any lessons or advice that you’d give to young women who are interested in following a similar path?

TH: Yes, I think the initial bit of advice I’d give to young people is don’t shut the door, which is all about starting early. Not shutting doors with the subjects that you take and not deciding very, very early that you don’t want to take maths and sciences because they can be deemed to be difficult.

It is getting better but there’s still a big shortage. The UK has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, at less than 10%, and women make up just 4% of the total UK oil and gas workforce.

So that’s a whole section of the population that are not coming into the industry, and the good news is that the industry needs lots of young people to come into it so the opportunities are there for young people to come into a really exciting career.

This interview was originally edited by JP Casey.

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