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From oil rigs to yellow dresses – the importance of believing in yourself and helping others

Release date:
20 June 2024
Ann Davies, SVP Wells

SPE Women in Engineering event, London Southbank University

Ann Davies speech at the SPE Women in Engineering event, London Southbank University


Hello everyone.


Thank you, Alice-Joy for your kind introduction.


And to everyone for turning out this morning.


And thank you to the Society of Petroleum Engineers for the opportunity to be here.


It’s great to be part of the Women in Energy seminar.


I love all the work you do promoting and supporting women in our sector.


Women have a vital role to play.


And for bp’s part, we are working alongside you, and making good progress.


Half of our executive leadership team are women.


Over half our board are female too.


And by next year, we aim to have equal numbers of men and women in our top 120 leadership roles as well.


We know, just as you know, that having diverse teams is not only right…


They perform better too.


When I joined bp 19 years ago, our industry wasn’t as diverse.


And this leads me to what I want to talk about today. 


How self-belief and helping each other brings about change.


I can think of three moments when I really learnt these lessons – and I want to share those with you today.


Three moments – relating to oil rigs, yellow dresses and life before bp.



1. Speaking up


The first moment relates to my early career when I worked on oil rigs.


As an engineer, working offshore was a fantastic experience.


Seeing what you design on paper come to life…


Managing safety…


Running operations every day, is incredible.


I wouldn’t be standing here today if I hadn’t worked offshore.


But, it wasn’t without challenges.


Offshore, there were very few women, as you’d expect of the time.


But I didn’t pay much attention to it. I focussed on my job.


And I would adapt to the environment around me.


It was at times ‘macho’.


But, believe it or not, I played rugby for 4 years at university, so I was used to that kind of environment. 


Even so, there were times when I put up with behaviour that I now see was inappropriate. 


Behaviour that I laughed off at the time.


For example…


It was not unusual for men to take women’s clothing…


And for there to be inappropriate images on the walls.


I wouldn’t tolerate that sort of thing now.


But back then, I didn’t want to cause a fuss.


Didn’t want to stand out.


I wanted to fit in.


And it worked to a degree.


I got by.


Did my job.


Moved on.


But sometime later in my career I received a phone call from a woman working offshore.


She was dealing with challenges like those I had experienced offshore.


And wanted my advice on how to deal with it.


That was the moment that made me think differently.

I thought to myself: ‘actually Ann, it’s not about you, it’s about me.’

I realised that just ignoring the behaviour was not the right thing to do.

And that other women shouldn’t have to go through what I went through.

I, like other women in our industry, want to be known for being engineers… not female engineers.

So, the day I received that phone call it changed me.I joined the women’s network in the region. 

The network has set many standards since, and behaviour towards women offshore has transformed. 

We raised the bar to what is acceptable.

The number of women working offshore has increased, so this too has helped.

And at bp, we now have a ‘speak up’ culture.

We encourage people to speak up when something doesn’t feel right.

Speak up means people being free to say:

‘I have concerns over this safety procedure.’

‘I don’t understand what I am being asked to do.’

‘I have an idea of how to do something better.’

‘I’m not comfortable with my colleague’s behaviour.’

Wherever you work… or choose to work… make sure they have a speak-up culture.

Speak up when something doesn’t feel right.

Speak up for yourself.

Speak up for others.

That’s the first lesson I learned.

That leads me to my second moment I want to share.


2. Being a ‘spot of yellow’


It’s a story about a yellow dress…


This dress

I dug it out of the back of my wardrobe to illustrate my story today.

Around 12 years ago, I was wearing this dress in an office environment and somebody remarked to me that it wasn’t very corporate.

I responded: “well, maybe this is the new generation of corporate.”

But it got to me, because I stopped wearing the dress to work.

I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.

The comment got into my head. 

The judgement influenced my decisions.

About a year later, I did wear this dress again, to an engineering event.

And one of the speakers at the event came up to me after they had presented.

And they started commenting on my dress… and I’m thinking ‘here we go again.’

But they surprised me.

They said that when they were on stage, they looked out at the audience and all they could see was this sea of grey and this spot of yellow.

It was a key moment.

It was at that point that I realised that being the spot of yellow in a sea of grey is not a bad thing.

It was something I was comfortable being.

I just needed that nudge – that self-belief.

And when each of us brings our whole selves to work, it contributes to the whole of the business.

We work better when we can be ourselves, bring our own ideas and perspectives.

Whether you want to be a spot of yellow or a sea of grey, it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that diverse teams perform better.

And, by the way, in our offices you can dress head to toe in yellow…

Or purple…

Or green…

Or a mixture of all three…whatever.

Nobody would bat an eyelid.

But wherever you find yourself in your career…

Make sure you feel free and able to bring your whole self to work.

You have a lot to offer.

You need to be yourself.

So, believe in yourself.

As I learnt to.


3. Knowing when to ask for help


My final story relates to something that happened before my career. 

I’m stood in this fantastic lecture theatre today.

But the idea of university was not on my radar when I was growing up.

I grew up in a village in north Wales.

Very picturesque.

But few prospects back then.


Girls left school, got married young, had kids, struggled for money.

That was how it tended to go.

I saw it play out time and time again.

I wanted to break that cycle. 

I used to gaze out at the stars and dream about flying rockets for NASA instead.

I’d write letters to them. And to their credit, they’d write back… answering my questions about their space shuttles.


I was around 12 years old at this point.

And what became clear to me was that if I wanted to work for NASA, I’d have to get educated. 

And I would need to pay high fees to go to university.

I heard Oxford was pretty good, so I aimed for there.

Academically I was doing well, but money was a barrier.

I knew my parents could never afford to send me to university.

So, I pretended to be older than I was to get a job. I worked hard, studied hard, saved my money.

At 17, I was offered an interview to study physics at Oxford University.

I had no idea what to expect and no way to get to the interview.

My family didn’t have a car.

So, I had to take a lift from somebody I barely knew.


A friend of a friend of a friend.

When I arrived for my interview at Oxford University, they asked me to take a load of tests.

The whole thing took longer than I expected.

And I missed my lift home.

After my interviews, I went to the train station.

But the money I had wasn’t enough to buy a ticket home.

I had nowhere to stay.

I was stranded.

I was scared.

And I didn’t want to go back to Oxford University to explain the situation as I was worried it would reflect negatively on me.

That it might wreck my chance of getting on their course.

That was my mindset back then.

So, I asked a woman who worked at the train station for help.

She looked like the kind of person who would be a good Mum, so I thought I could trust her.

I was right, as when I explained my situation, she sprang into action.

She went back into the ticket office and then a while later came over to me with a wad of orange train tickets.

She had worked out a series of journeys I could take with the money I had that would eventually get me back to north Wales.

She went to great lengths for me that day.

I told her that I’d never forget her act of kindness.

And I haven’t.

The fact I am talking about her today is proof of that.

When I got accepted into Oxford university, I went to see her to tell her the news, and she cried tears of happiness.

University changed my life.

But I didn’t join NASA, as you may have guessed.

I joined bp instead… and I’m glad I did.

Like NASA, bp offers infinite possibilities.

Having access to energy is a human right.

So I’m proud to work for bp.

And I worked bloody hard to get to where I am.

But I had help from others too.

Like the kind lady at Oxford train station.

And like the women’s network did for women working offshore.

When we help each other, we can achieve more.

The key thing for me… was knowing when to ask for help.

And this, in turn, has shown me when I can help others.

That’s the third thing I’ve learnt.


And right now, we need to help each other more than ever.

The energy sector is one of the few where you can say you’re helping to play a part in solving one of the world’s greatest challenges.

How to provide energy to everyone on the planet.

Remember, there are still nearly a billion people today without access to electricity.

It’s a privilege to work in our sector.

But the reality is that the energy system is more complex than ever.

The world wants and needs energy that is secure, affordable and sustainable.

Achieving this energy trilemma will require a diversity of solutions.

That includes oil, gas and renewables – all sectors I’ve worked in.

And it requires a diversity of thought.

Different backgrounds, skills and experience.

It needs good men…

And it needs good women.

Men and women that feel empowered to speak up.

Men and women who believe in themselves.

Who feel able to bring their whole selves to work.

Men and women who look out for and help each other.

Men and women who are free to be a spot of yellow…

…and feel inspired and empowered in what they do. 

As I now do – and I hope you do too.

Thank you.