As you’ve read in my past blog entries, I am a big proponent of women pursuing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers, an area in which women are hugely under-represented. Cindy Yeilding, a senior geologist in the oil and gas industry, shares those same values.
She is the Vice President of Exploration & Appraisal at BP and is an example of a woman who has risen near the top of her company through a science track in an industry that is historically male-dominated. Read my interview with Cindy below where she discusses how her love of geology developed, what it’s like working on an offshore rig with an all-male crew and how she volunteers her time to inspire students to consider careers in science and technology.
Q: Cindy, can you tell us about the path you followed to reach your current position? I’m particularly interested in how your love of geology developed.
Cindy: The path to my current career in geology was seeded by my mom, who took me rock and fossil hunting as a young child. In high school I was tagged as being good at math. My strength in this area led me to focus on math as a major in college, but my true love was art history and architecture. After a few college-level math courses, I discovered that I was not interested in making a career out of it and re-focused on geology, the perfect melding of art and science.
Studying geology provided opportunities to work outdoors in gorgeous settings, to learn more about the Earth and to be part of a team that worked to solve unique problems. The thing that excited me the most was playing the role of sleuth. In geology, you interpret clues from the Earth to create models revealing the structure, history and layers of rocks.
Shortly after receiving my master’s degree in the field, I began my career with BP. I’ve been here ever since, and have never wanted to go anywhere else.
Q: What are some of the difficulties you’ve faced from being in a male-dominated industry and how did you overcome them?
Cindy: I spent much of my early career working offshore on rigs. I eventually realized that my being a geologist, not my being a woman, was what primarily bothered the all-male rig crew. The crew of engineers assumed that I did not understand drilling and would interrupt the well constantly to stop to look at samples. In short, they believed that I would just get in the way. I built relationships with the team and shared my understanding of each well’s objectives and geology. They soon began understanding the value and insights I brought to the well. When the men on the rig started throwing around terms like “stacked channel complex” and “Miocene nannofossils,” I knew I had become a part of the team. That I was the only woman for hundreds of miles didn’t matter.
Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to have my share of successes, mixed in with a few failures. But one of the biggest lessons I’ve taken away is that in our industry, it isn’t race or gender that defines us: it is our brains. And while there are some massively brilliant brains around, we get the most value via the ‘Bigger Brain’: applying and including everyone’s experience, insights and know-how to create solutions to complex problems. And when you use that ‘Bigger Brain’ to start busting accepted dogmas, amazing things can happen.
Q: Can you expand on the work you do to inspire students to consider careers in science and technology? What are the top three things we can do to encourage girls to pursue these interests?
Cindy: It’s no secret that women are an under-represented group in STEM careers. What is surprising is that this continues to be the case despite evidence that a large number of our young women are very interested in careers that fall under this umbrella. In addition, retention continues to be an issue: some women begin in STEM careers but do not stick with them.
To encourage young women to enter and progress in STEM fields we need to 1) educate them regarding the opportunities that exist from an early age, 2) provide strong STEM female role models and 3) support women once they enter the industry.
BP is actively working to help ensure this happens. The company is supporting girls’ programs that spark interest in achieving high-tech skills, engaging in programs designed to mentor women at the university level and involving employees in helping to recruit female professionals. We take part in high school outreach programs where we bring in science and engineering students to spend the day here to learn about our careers. We also sponsor ‘Take Your Child to Work Day,’ where elementary through high school students join us at BP for a day to learn about the science and engineering we apply on the job.
Scientists and engineers can play a huge role by speaking at schools and children’s groups and sharing our experiences and enthusiasm for our careers. My children’s teachers have graciously invited me and my colleagues to lead sessions on geology and paleontology for their classes. My husband (also a geologist) and I even hosted a “geology” party for our daughter’s eighth birthday. We dug up part of our yard and made a fossil pit, we built a “Princess Gem and mineral mine” and everyone received their own geologist gear. All the children departed with a big bag of fossils and minerals, and hopefully some left as budding geologists!
Q: As a career coach, I’m always emphasizing the value and importance of mentorship in career development for women. Please describe your most important mentor and how they helped you achieve success.
Cindy: The mentors that I had at various stages of my career were a critical part of my success. They provided constant and invaluable counsel, insight and encouragement. My friends and colleagues have provided fantastic career and personal support over the years and have seen me through many professional and personal choices and challenges.
One of my most powerful mentors was Ian Vann, who retired from BP as the Head of Exploration (Group Vice President) in 2006. Ian valued creativity and deep technical expertise, and nurtured and supported me despite my different style. For example, once when I was struggling to decide on and “land” my next role, Ian candidly said, “They just don’t get it Cindy – be patient, they will.” It was oddly comforting to know that while not everyone immediately recognized my skills, Ian did and that he fully supported me. By the way, my next role ended up being fantastic!
Photos: Courtesy of Cindy Yeilding