Susannah Stott, Portfolio and Demand Manager in Shell’s Low Carbon Fuels business, worked offshore for over three years as a Wellsite Drilling Engineer and Well Services Supervisor. After returning onshore, she set up the ‘D&I in Ops’ initiative, which aimed to address gender inequality across Shell’s offshore and onshore operating sites.
In this blog to follow International Women in Engineering Day 2023 and its theme #MakeSafetySeen, Susannah shares the story of how concerns raised by women about the design of Shell’s survival suits led to significant, award-winning and lasting changes.
It was only after I returned to office-based work that I met women who shared their experiences of working offshore. In the gym changing room, they’d tell stories of not having correct sanitary provision, or of sexist comments they had endured from colleagues. Or they’d share their frustration at basic personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements not being met. All this had contributed to their ultimate decision to move back to an office role. Some stories I recognised, others I didn’t, but all suggested to me that something needed to change.
Issues around technology and products not being designed with women in mind have been well detailed through the work of writer Caroline Criado-Perez or the Women’s Engineering Society and the TUC. Off the back of the anecdotes I heard, I decided to do something about it. I reached out to our women’s network, Shell Balance, and suggested setting up a dedicated working group to address any potential DE&I gaps across our offshore and onshore work sites.
An evidence-led approach
Firstly, I recognised the need to build an unequivocal case for change. So, I held a number of focus groups to collect the experiences of numerous women from different backgrounds working across our sites. Their feedback contributed to eight key focus areas to drive improvement across our operations.
One key learning was women’s experience of being unable to participate in scheduled trips offshore due to ill-fitting survival suits. The number was initially thought to be small (around 1 in 30,000). It was therefore difficult to get traction on the subject. However, these were almost all women. And they were usually women unable to do their job because of inadequate PPE design.
There was a clear data gap we needed to close. So, in 2021-22 we ran a survey to explore this further. This highlighted that it was people of all genders, shapes and sizes that had experienced issues finding a suit on the day of their flight. Having to change suit multiple times in front of other passengers had been an uncomfortable experience for more than half of people. And a quarter of those surveyed had at one point thought that the seals on their suit might not fit properly but felt uncomfortable asking for another one. This raised a real concern around the safety of those travelling offshore.
Creating better, safer PPE
We took this information to our survival suit provider Survitec, and together with senior leaders made a strong case for change. Once they saw our data, they were fully on board. Working directly with Survitec meant required changes were implemented without delay.
Improved safety, productivity and inclusion – for Shell and beyond
The adoption of a systematic approach to survival suit fitting brings numerous benefits.
Firstly, it reduces time spent finding and fitting the right survival suits, which ultimately leads to fewer delays and a smoother, more comfortable journey offshore. This translates into more productive use of time.
Secondly, the implementation of a more inclusive product and process is designed to remove any apprehension colleagues may have felt previously about their gender or body shape affecting the fit of their suit. And contributes to wider feelings of inclusion and satisfaction in the job.
Finally, due to the reach of Survitec, these changes have now been implemented globally and are available to everyone in the offshore industry flying through any Survitec serviced heliport. This has meant a far bigger impact than we could have achieved without the partnership.
A case study in swift and practical action
The project has been recognised by the industry as an example of best practice, and the team (Callum Thomson at Shell, Richard Gordon at Survitec and I) were honoured to be nominated for the Offshore Energies UK DE&I award in 2022 and to win the Offshore Achievement Award for DE&I earlier this year.
I hope the approach of this initiative will serve as an industry standard. Inclusive environments are crucial to a diverse workforce. This is a clear example of identifying a problem, teaming up and working together to remove barriers that will benefit the careers and the safety of female engineers – and many others in the industry – for years to come.
Listening and learning from people’s stories
The stories of women in the changing rooms showed that small things are often the barriers to creating a more diverse and inclusive working environment. A simple pause for thought and seeing experiences from another person’s perspective can make all the difference.
This year’s International Women in Engineering Day reminded me how important it is to share learnings and stories and to recognise the progress we have made. But we also need to acknowledge that there is still a long way to go. We should be open, curious and strive to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to understand where change is needed, and pave the way for those generations to come. This feels like one small but important step towards that.