‘You can do whatever you want, whether you want to go offshore - or to the moon - go for it’

Last edited: 6 March 2017

In the five years since she graduated from the American university in Cairo, Dena Hegab, 26, has become one of the first few women to drill for BP in the Mediterranean. She talks about her experiences on board a rig as a woman among 179 men – and why she’s keen to break down stereotypes in the oil and gas industry, in North Africa and beyond

It seems that I’m one of the first few women to drill in the Mediterranean Sea…

Five years into my career with BP, that gives me a great deal of satisfaction. I joined on the Challenge (graduate) programme after six months elsewhere, so I was pretty much a fresh graduate of petroleum and energy engineering. There are many stereotypes, around women doing what’s perceived as a ‘tough’ drilling job in a male-dominated environment. I don’t think women avoid this field because it’s challenging though, there’s just a lack of female role models.

There were 180 people on the drilling rig; myself and 179 men…

I like challenges, which is fortunate because a month after joining BP, I first flew out offshore. There were 180 people on board the drilling rig; myself and 179 men. Egypt, in some respects, can be described as having a traditional culture and some men working offshore are not used to having a woman on board. I noticed a difference between myself and male graduate peers – people would approach them to ask questions and discuss matters, rather than me. So, I took the initiative to get to know my colleagues to demonstrate my openness and professional ability. I approached them instead.

It’s important to know you have the support of your managers and the business…

I knew that if I was going to take on the challenge, I needed to join a company that believes in diversity and supports its staff to fulfil their potential.

In some ways, women in drilling start off from a trailing position…

Everyone faces the technical lessons of the day job, but there is an element of needing to prove that your gender doesn’t limit your abilities in a demanding, offshore environment. Egypt has a very traditional culture and some men working offshore are not used to female engineers being on-site. On a practical basis though, life on board the rig was easy. Take the accommodation, for example, I shared a room with a colleague who was on alternate shifts, so we never saw one another. It’s not hard to overcome so-called ‘difficulties’.

At a glance: Dena's CV

2007-12: BSc, Petroleum & energy engineering, American University of Cairo

2013-15: BP Challenge programme, including role as well site drilling engineer on rotation at Salamat-1 and GEB East-1 wells (Maersk Discoverer rig)

2016: Drilling engineer for Mocha onshore exploration well

Current role: Tubular design specialist, BP’s global wells organization, Houston, US.

It’s not necessary to turn into a guy to fit in. I can still be myself…

There’s no point in changing my interests, hobbies and, ultimately, my whole self to fit into this environment. What we each bring to the workplace depends on us as individuals; businesses don’t need everyone to think in exactly the same way. Let’s be honest, the job of a drilling engineer is not for everyone – it wouldn’t be the right fit for every woman, just as it’s not the right fit for every man. If you have no desire to work offshore on long shifts, spending a stretch of time away from home, it won’t be right for you as a person. But, if you’re keen on the lifestyle and fascinated by the oil and gas industry, you might find it amazing.

There’s no such thing as an average day for a drilling engineer…

The role had always appealed to me; I loved maths and physics and I knew that the energy industry gave you chances to work abroad. My father was a drilling engineer, so my two sisters and I had always been exposed to this field. I liked the idea of following in his footsteps. Drilling excites me because you work ‘in the kitchen’, at the heart of operations. And, there are opportunities to work with so many people from different backgrounds – there were 67 nationalities on board the rig and that’s such great exposure on a personal level. And working on high profile projects in Egypt, I believe, set me up to take on an international assignment now with a central BP team in Houston.

If I have children later on, I’ll teach them it’s okay to be different…

I don’t understand why it’s reasonable for a boy to want to be an astronaut or an engineer, but for a girl, it’s good to be a nurse or teacher. This happens when they’re so young and we shouldn’t encourage these stereotypes in the back of their minds. You can do whatever you want, with the right character, guts and mindset. Whether you want to go offshore – or to the moon – go for it.

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