100 Years of Amazing Women

A review of 'Anomalies - Pioneering Women in Petroleum Geology: 1917 – 2017' by Robbie Rice Gries
This article appeared in Vol. 14, No. 5 - 2017


An anomaly is “a departure from the expected or normal”. The anomalies Robbie Gries is talking about in this fascinating book are female petroleum geologists – still very much a minority even today.

This account of women in the oil and gas industry is a fantastic achievement, requiring a huge amount of detailed research in order to highlight how they have been both celebrated and side-lined. The life stories of over a hundred pioneering women in petroleum geology, the majority AAPG members, are told; the oldest were born in the last decades of the 19th century, stretching across the years to people now in their 40s and 50s. We meet them in roughly chronological order, but they are also linked through chapters which roughly trace the trajectory of women’s progress through the industry, from the first female geologists employed during WWI, to pioneering geology managers, micropalaeontologists and geophysicists, through WWII and on to ongoing struggles for equality, culminating in the anecdotes of some present-day managerial ‘rock stars’, including Susan Cunningham and Susan Morrice.

Prejudice and Persistence

'Anomalies - Pioneering Women in Petroleum Geology: 1917 – 2017' by Robbie Rice Gries. Jewel Publishing, 2017 As a woman reading this book, you cannot help frequently feeling furious at the prejudice and arrogance which consigned women to bit parts in much of the exciting history of oil exploration, whatever their abilities. The irony of the fact that as men started leaving for the Front during the WWI, highly qualified women took over, only to be pushed to one side when the men came back, either losing their jobs or relegated to clerical unskilled roles, their contribution forgotten, is not lost – particularly since the same thing happened 20 years later after WWII. Women were forced to choose between a career and love, as most companies refused to employ married women, dismissing them promptly on marriage. From even just an economic standpoint, what a waste of training, knowledge and experience.

But then you get into the stories of these amazingly resilient, courageous and tenacious pioneers who, when the industry was still in its infancy, had to battle not just the authorities but often also their own families just to study geology, and you are overcome with admiration. These were tough, intelligent ladies, many of whom had known hardship in their youth, but who had a tremendous love of geoscience and a desire to take part in the exciting journey of oil exploration. They were physically very brave as well as mentally resilient, and the tales of early car travel, when punctures and breakdowns in deserted locations were commonplace and the starting handle as useful an implement as the geological hammer, are fascinating, and not a little scary. Stories of “hard work, persistence and patient fortitude” eventually rewarded are to be found on every page.

It is also encouraging to read of the (male) managers who defied the conventions of the times and insisted on both employing and promoting women, recognising ability when they saw it (even if they still paid them less than their male equivalents). They even accepted a woman’s right to ‘sit’ a well in the field – although there are some interesting anecdotes about how the male colleagues reacted when the first woman joined their team!

Affirmative Action Needed

One would expect that the majority of these stories of struggles for women to take their place as petroleum geologists came from the early years of the 20th century, but as a graph of female membership of the AAPG shows, the number of women joining the profession between 1947 and 1972 was as low as it had been in the 1920s and 30s, with an average of about three women a year becoming members of the organisation. Robbie believes that popular culture sought to propagate the idea of ‘a woman’s place is in the home’, and if they really wanted to work as geoscientists they had to work their way up from menial and clerical roles, accept lower pay, run errands and make coffee - and probably have contacts in the company to get the job in the first place. As Robbie says: “The women who broke through entrenched rules in academia to earn their geology degrees before and during WWII and fought to have and keep their careers in the oil business after the war were…technically proficient, resilient and loved the industry.”

The 1973 increase in AAPG female membership is down to Affirmative Action, as the US Equal Employment Opportunities Commission began to enforce anti-discrimination laws, which included hiring goals for minorities and women, as well as equal pay for equal jobs. Even then, as Robbie herself confirms in her own biography (as a geologist of note and the first female President of the AAPG, she is rightly included in this collection) there was subtle discrimination; only the boys were offered industry internships when she was at university in the 1960s, as “it was assumed the girls would never work in geology”. Having levelled up the playing field in many ways, there was still the thorny issue of the “lack of appropriate accommodation” on ships and rigs, both on and offshore, preventing women from doing their jobs properly and gaining wider experience, as Denise Stone found in the 1980s.

Many stories centre around the unchanging issues of maternity leave and child care, with a variety of solutions – although it is unlikely that any modern geologist would adopt that of single mum Fanny Carter Edson in the 1920s. When she had no one to mind her daughter while she ‘sat’ a well, Fanny checked the seven-year old into a hotel room, gave her some cash and told her it had to last a week!

Strong and Determined Women

Using diaries, recordings, company archives, interviews with families and friends and chats with the pioneers themselves, including some in their 90s or older, Robbie has built up a fascinating view of the life of a huge range of women. The book includes many photographs, which really bring these people to life, superbly illustrating the changing times – from ladies in long skirts wielding hammers to women working on rigs in jeans and hard hats – and also gives interesting insights into social and political changes over more than a century of the growth of an industry.

This is a book to dip into and, importantly, to learn from, including the lesson of how easy it was to nearly forget the contribution that these individuals have made to their industry. Without this book and the hours of work that Robbie and her helpers in the AAPG have put into researching and compiling it, “the life and times of these strong and determined women” were almost lost to history. As Robbie told me: “I took so much pleasure in getting to know these amazing women”. The same pleasure is waiting for anyone who picks up this book.


Related Articles

GEO Media Worldwide

Energy and Climate Change

A review of Michael Stephenson's book titled: "Energy and Climate Change: An Introduction to Geological Controls, Interventions and Mitigations" published in 2018 by Elsevier.