‘I don’t see myself as a woman in a male – dominated profession’
Lydia Balogun-Wilson is the first black person to hold the position of Operations Support Team Leader at the North Sea headquarters of BP Plc, a multinational oil and gas company. She is also the founder of Lydia Wilson Foundation, a charitable organisation that aims to alleviate the sufferings of orphans, widows and the aged without care. In this interview with KEHINDE OLATUNJI, she narrated her journey into the male-dominated profession and how she rose to prominence.
How did you start your journey into the world of Science and Engineering?
I had a curious mind and wanted to know how things worked. I used to watch a lot of science programmes on Nickelodeon, as well as Blue Peter and Sesame Street. I used to love how science experiments were conducted on these programmes and how you were encouraged to use your imagination to solve problems. My father was the one who inspired me to love science and later engineering. He always bought me child-friendly science journals, model planes and cars to put together. My second inspiration came from one of my uncles, who was a process control engineer in a top cement manufacturing company in West Africa. During one of my visits to his office, I noticed there was only one woman working in his team. When I asked him why he said women did not tend to study engineering. I saw this as a challenge and made it an ambition to not only study engineering, but to excel at it. So, I read Chemical Engineering at university and later studied Petroleum Engineering at Master’s level.
Kindly take us through your career journey.
I started my oil and gas engineering career by serving with the Nigerian Department of Petroleum (DPR) in 2002.
I did a stint in banking by working for Zenith before moving back to engineering when I was hired by the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) as a graduate chemical engineer. I was seconded to Shell in 2005 on the Train 6 LNG project and Otumara Development Project before relocating to the UK with my husband under the UK Highly Skilled Migrant programme (HSMP) in 2006.
In Britain, I was interviewed and got a job with Foster Wheeler in January 2007 as a process engineer and spent five years before moving to Snaprogetti/ENI in March 2011 as a Senior Process Engineer and later joined BP as a Facilities Process Engineer in 2011. I have held various roles in BP since then, one of which was an offshore rotational role. I have held other technical leadership roles termed broadening such as, Reliability Engineer, Deepwater Activity Team Leader, which are considered critical for becoming a well-rounded leader in the oil and gas industry.
I was appointed as Operations Support Team Leader in 2018 for one of the flagship assets. This is one of the pivotal safety-critical roles in oil and gas operation and requires emotional maturity and good technical depth to be considered for these roles. Some companies call this type of roles asset manager or facilities manager. Being the first black person appointed to this role in the UK North Sea oil and gas industry is just humbling.
What are the factors that influenced your decisions?
Multiple challenges facing science and engineering globally and my desire to bring simplicity and encourage more women and youths to study engineering is a great influence. Looking at the low level of interests from our youths in studying science and engineering has inspired me to go out and speak up. Being an engineer, my curiosity and desire to find solutions to challenges holds a great factor. My faith and my husband’s support had been the secret of my success and influence. I would not have gone for any job, role or position without first agreeing same with God and my husband.
As a member of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network (STEMNet), what efforts are being considered to capture the mind of the younger generation especially girls in Engineering?
A lot of workshops bring children to work, scholarships and mentoring programmes are now in place to encourage girls right from primary and secondary schools, and this has opened up the minds of these young talents. Also sharing the stories of successful women in science and engineering has helped a lot in this area.
I believe in encouraging and mentoring the younger generation on the importance of science and engineering in our society. Through STEMnet, my team and I have organised secondary school visits to BP and supported local events. My passion to capture the minds of young individuals, led me to work with BP North Sea to organise “Bring your child to work day;” this has now been recognised as an annual event. I’m also a member of the Royal Academy of Engineering and an active chartered member of Institute of Chemical Engineers (IChemE). I support IChemE in the charter-ship and mentoring process. In my local community in the UK, I mentor several young individuals as well as my peers professionally and on matters of ethics.
Engineering is a male-dominated profession, how have you been able to reach a peak in your career?
Though I am still aiming for the top in the industry, I have always believed that my hard work and determination will be recognised. I don’t see myself as a woman in a male-dominated profession. Rather, I see myself as someone who brings creativity, dynamism, innovation and diversity of thoughts and perspectives to situations. I am truly myself always.
Does the glass ceiling still exists for women? If so, do you think enough is being done to promote women in workplaces?
I think a lot is being done to shatter the glass ceiling that used to exist, however, there is still more to be done. In the developed world, women are encouraged, and the workplace is adapting to cater to part-time working women to promote inclusion. Even the interview styles and work contracts have been adjusted to promote equality.
In developing nations like Nigeria, there is a need to call out and disagree with the corporate bullying of women who want to advance their careers. My heart breaks when I read news of women in power being made scapegoats for the same crime, we let men get away with. I am a strong advocate of fairness and meritocracy irrespective of race and gender. Let’s get rid of the scapegoat culture and create a transparent platform of meritocracy with zero tolerance for corporate bullying and harassment. If this is in place, Nigeria will advance faster than expected.
How can corporate organisations, professional bodies and governments help improve the balance?
Create a fair process of recruitment and work conditions that do not make it impossible for women with families to be ambitious. Encourage flexible working conditions. A mindset change from what has always been the norm to getting on board with the change required is necessary. Create deliberate targets of increasing female talents on the company’s board and management. The Nigerian government is currently trying its best but I do believe more still needs to be done. More women need to be appointed to critical positions in the oil and gas industry to show inclusion.
What role do you think women can play in bridging the divide?
Women who have advanced their careers must make it a deliberate plan to help other women coming behind them to equally advance. As a woman, once you get a seat at a management table, don’t be silent but rather use the opportunity to influence justifiable change that will allow other women to get a seat as well. More importantly, don’t try to be like the men you work with but be comfortable being a woman and executing your role differently but efficiently.
Why do you think more women should be involved in the engineering profession?
Women bring a diversity of thought to decision-making and troubleshooting, an average woman can multi-task effectively. This is because we think differently from men. The more women in engineering, the more welcoming we can influence the profession to change and adapt to today’s modernisation.
What informed the Lydia Wilson Foundation and what do they do?
Given my passion for helping the less privileged, I registered the Foundation both in the United Kingdom and Nigeria. It is a charitable organisation that aims to alleviate sufferings of orphans, widows and the aged without care. I saw that our society does not have a robust plan in place to adequately support these groups of vulnerable people and I decided this was my avenue to give back to society. Through the charity, my team and I have been able to touch several lives and it is my dream to one day build an orphanage for abandoned and abused children, a school with a skills centre for educating as well as retraining orphans and widows.
Your dad played a significant role in your journey to Science and Engineering, what is your advice to parents and guardians?
My dad took an interest in my schoolwork and educational development. He took time to understand and know me to be able to influence me. Parents and guardians need to take time to know their children, especially what interests them. You will find it easy to encourage your children if they see that you are also interested in what they are doing.
What are your future plans?
(Laughs) To continue to excel in what I do and more. My desire is to get to the top of the oil and gas echelon and contribute to the solutions of advanced technologies in the industry globally.
How do you combine the home-front with your career?
I have a very supportive husband who is as busy as myself. We use our calendar diary to manage our career demands and support being there for our kids. We have never had a nanny nor extended family support since the children were born. My husband and I are a team and we support each other as co-parents without being rigid on who does what around the home. This has worked for us, made us understand our kids better and has allowed us to both work full-time and raise a family.
What is your advice to career women?
I usually tell them, “You can do anything. I have a family and I work full time. The only thing that can hold you back is you.”
How do you relax?
I take time to travel. I love listening to classical music and a spa day at least once a quarter is not missed. I also go for walks with my children and create an individual one to one time with them.