Early in her career in oil and gas, engineer Jill Chieng was told to be more aggressive as she was entering into a male domain. But after more than two decades in the industry, Chieng can confidently say that women don’t need to be ruthless or aggressive.

They need to be authentic. It’s a philosophy that has worked for her. Chieng is now the general manager of Sarawak Shell Berhad, one of the few women on top in the oil and gas industry.

“It is not uncommon for me to be the only female in a team. At times it can be intimidating as oil and gas is still perceived as an industry for those who are ‘macho’. The perception is that you need to be tough to survive,” shares Chieng who manages a staff of 500, of whom 200 work on offshore platforms.

Although the job is challenging – she is responsible for the safe and reliable production of oil and gas, ensuring that the company’s facilities are well maintained, operations smooth and production is constant – Chieng believes that it isn’t out of reach for women to thrive in technical and science fields.

Women, she says, need to believe in themselves more and be bold in trying new things without the fear of making mistakes.

“Women can do equally as well as men, if not better, when we put our hearts and minds to it. At times, I think women need a bit more push.

“Many feel that they need to be able to do a job or know a field 100% before they even consider applying. But we need to change this mindset. Women need to have the courage to take risks, work hard and trust that their colleagues will be there to support them.

Chieng was told that she needed to be aggressive to do well in engineering.

“When I was given the opportunity to work in the UK, I hesitated. At the time, I felt that I had limited maintenance exposure. But I am thankful that my superior encouraged me to go for it.

“I was the only female on the team, leading a group of senior and Western male colleagues. I simply reminded myself what my purpose was – to improve performance and once I made my goal clear, I was able to rally support and deliver the outcome.

“It is OK to make mistakes. You don’t have to be 100% to take on a challenge. Believe in yourself and learn from your mistakes and improve,” says Chieng who hails from Sibu, Sarawak but is currently residing in Miri.

While there are more women doing engineering science degrees and joining technical fields like the oil and gas industry, Chieng laments that women remain a minority.

Although women may have to “get their hands dirty” and hone different skills-sets (in technical fields), Chieng believes that women have inherent skills that will actually benefit them.

“There are advantages to being a female in this industry. The fact that we are naturally more empathetic and willing to listen has played a part in changing the culture in the organisation.

“People are more willing to talk about their problems and challenges and when this happens, issues can be addressed and performance will improve,” says Chieng who credits her parents, both schoolteachers, for encouraging her to “be better” and excel in whatever she does.

Technical fields, Chieng asserts, are not exclusively for men. She decided to study engineering because of a desire to “experiement (on) new ideas and create new things”.

“As a process engineer I had the opportunity to choose field development concepts and design facilities to process hydrocarbon products which we extracted, to be transported, processed and sold to customers.

“In the engineering field, I get to try new technologies and experience digitalisation. For example, we use robotics to perform pipeline and vessel cleaning, chemical cleaning and we use digital devises like the tab/iPad to enable mobile workers and capture safety observations at the sites,” she says enthusiastically.

Chieng with her husband and their three daughters.

Balance is key

Achieving a work-life balance is not easy, says Chieng. However, she is thankful that she had a supportive work environment that allowed her to focus on her career without compromising her time with family.

“When I was a young mother, I had to learn to cope with work demands and care for my little ones. I was determined to breastfeed all my babies and am glad that I was able to hold myself to that commitment.

“But I had plenty of help at home. And, having a mother’s room in the office and flexible work arrangements made a big difference and allowed me to get through that phase of my life.

“My advice? Be prepared to get help. There is this perception that women are good at multi-tasking. Even if this is true, one needs to recognise that we only have 24 hours in a day. There is always work that can be delegated and we need to accept that.

“There is great support out there if you have the right attitude and behaviour. Be humble, be a learner and be clear about what you want to achieve.

“In my case, I have a fantastic full time helper at home which allows me to spend time with my children after office hours,” says Chieng who has three daughters aged 14, 12 and nine.

As a leader in her industry, Chieng hopes that she can be a role model not only for the women in her team but also to young girls who are thinking about a career in engineering or in technical fields.

“I believe in walking the talk and I try to coach and mentor the women in my team. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a chat over coffee. I ensure that women are given opportunities to thrive even though this means that I must to a but of pushing. Once they accept the challenge I make sure that they have a support structure and are set up for success.

“I want to encourage women that a career need not come at the expense of family and vice versa. It’s possible to have a rewarding career and a loving family. But I must admit that work life integration is a balancing act and one needs to work at it all the time. There is no right (formula) and everyone has to define for herself or himself what that balance should look like and work towards it.

“I have had a rewarding career. I have grown as an engineer, manager and leader not just through technical excellence but in terms of development of my leadership skills that have helped me as a daughter, sister, wife and mother,” she says.