“I’m tired of talking about women in geosciences.”
That’s Susan R. Eaton, president of SR ECO Consultants, Inc., and not to put too fine a point on this, longtime correspondent for the EXPLORER, when asked about being featured in this very “Women in Geosciences” issue.
“I graduated from university 36 years ago,” said Eaton, who has established a successful career in Canada’s energy sector, including being the vice president of exploration for three junior oil and gas companies and running her own energy consultancy. She’s also the founder and leader of the Sedna Epic Expedition, an organization studying climate change in the Canadian High Arctic comprised of an international team of female ocean scientists, explorers, journalists, movie-makers, photographers, educators and professional scuba divers, “and I tire about talking of women in our sciences, because there are increasing numbers of women in our sciences. I feel like this title puts me in a box.”
Eaton is a world-class polar snorkeler and has participated in science-based expeditions to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, Antarctica, Labrador, Baffin Island, Greenland, Spitzbergen and Iceland. She holds degrees in geology, petroleum geology and geophysics and journalism, and is a founding member of Nature Canada’s Women for Nature initiative. A commissioned officer in Canada’s reserve army, she was named one of Canada’s top 100 modern-day explorers by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2015.
So who can really blame her?
In fact, Eaton says, while she suspects that some men may “roll their eyes” when they see this issue and think “Not another issue about women geoscientists,” she believes women, too, are not going to appreciate it.
“I think most women would prefer not to have that adjective in front of their title.”
A Downturn Blind to Gender
So there you have it.
Eaton is outspoken, refreshing and relentless about this very topic, even while she understands, on many levels, its importance.
“We keep going back to it, though, and that’s OK,” she said, adding that to call attention to women in the industry, however, in her opinion, serves to diminish women’s achievements.
“The oil and gas industry hasn’t always been the most magnanimous employer for men or women, because over time, when the price of oil collapses, staff gets fired,” she said, regardless of gender.
And here Eaton cuts through the clichéd public relations spin.
“Oil companies are always saying ‘Our strength is in our people,’ and, yet, when the price of oil collapses, the people who built these companies are gone,” she added.
She cited her hometown of Calgary as an example.
“Most of the new hires have been laid off; and, most of my peers, over 45 years of age, have been laid off. There are virtually no gray-haired people left in Canada’s E&P companies; sadder even, there are very few under-30s left, and they represent the future of the E&P industry,” she said.
Improving the Message
To talk to Eaton is to hear someone who loves geoscience, loves the oil and gas industry, but, like anyone involved in a long-term marriage, she sees the imperfections and shortcomings.
In the industry’s case, she begins with external messaging.
“The industry is not doing a good job. It comes up short in so many areas, which is ironic because most oil and gas companies have large public affairs and media relations departments. That said, I think they fail on many levels in terms of describing what they do for a living and how it benefits the general public. Considering all their assets, all their skilled employees, and all the money they spend, the industry’s external message doesn’t seem to resonate with stakeholders. In short, communicating what the oil and gas industry does for a living is a public relations disaster,” said Eaton, whose consultancy includes managing external communications for the oil and gas sector.
External communications are better in Canada, she said, where the E&P industry is “getting it right,” despite acknowledging that the general public trusts environmental groups more than oil and gas companies.
To right this ship, Eaton said, the E&P sector has to start with respect.
“It’s not about training the general public; it’s about listening very carefully to the general public’s concerns and closing the gaps in differences of opinion,” said Eaton.
And, here she jumps on the third rail of the industry – both of them, actually – when asked if there was something that prevents the oil and gas industry from being a better at communication with the general public.
“The DNA of the oil and gas industry has often been cloaked in secrecy; oil and gas companies don’t willingly share information with stakeholders, unless they’re regulated to do so. Case in point: the whole discussion of hydraulic fracturing technology and formulae. It took challenges at the state and federal court levels to force the E&P and service sector companies to divulge the chemical formulae of hydraulic fracturing fluids,” she said.
As for climate change, she challenges how the E&P sector in the United States has handled the issue with the public.
“Climate change is not an issue in Europe or here in Canada. It’s a done deal. Every major oil company in Canada knows it’s happening, and the industry stated that it’s part of the problem; ergo, part of the solution,” she said.
Part of the problem in the United States, she believes, is that some industry associations don’t want to offend their older members, some of whom she calls “the fossils in the fossil fuel industry.”
The future of these groups (whose membership is aging demographically) is in attracting younger members, she explained.
“And, these industry associations can’t afford not to attract the younger members who accept the body of science behind climate change,” she said.
Nonetheless, Eaton said she appreciates what these organizations have allowed her to do in her career.
The AAPG Foundation supported two of her three expeditions to Antarctica, the Falklands and South Georgia, where she filed dispatches for the EXPLORER, from “the Bottom of the World.”
“The petroleum industry associations have been amazing to me, in terms of financially supporting me to study climate change in Antarctica. I’m not a climate change scientist, but the skill set developed during my oil and gas career has enabled me to travel to Antarctica, to contribute the geology and geophysical perspectives to the discussion of climate change,” she said.
Eaton was inspired to enter the sciences by her mother, Ann Eaton, who graduated in 1955 with a biochemistry degree and worked as a marine biologist during her career. For decades, she’s been giving back as well, especially to young girls, and especially as an advocate of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), but with one caveat.
“I believe that to make STEM effective, we must move towards STEAM,” she said - the “A” denoting “Arts.”
“From my perspective, not all children are going to grow up to be geoscientists, mathematicians or engineers. That said, it’s important that citizens develop a broad understanding of science and technology, and how it impacts our daily lives, in so many ways.”
The future of STEAM education is growing, she said, especially if it’s seen correctly and cultivated.
“We talk about getting girls interested in science at a young age… and they’re all interested in science at a young age. In fact, they tend to perform better in science than boys do in elementary and middle schools. But, by the time girls get to high school, they seem to fall behind in science, primarily due to societal pressures. Often, girls don’t want to be known as the smart girl; they want to be known as the cool girl.
“All of this means we’ve still got a problem of attracting women to geosciences,” she added.
But, the ‘science geek’ girls who continue their STEM studies into college and university perform very well, especially in geosciences, Eaton explained. These young women are generally better educated than their male peers, she added, because “they tend to stay in university for graduate studies.”
Her own story, though, and perhaps why magazine issues like these annoy her so, is because - as important as it is to attract women to geosciences, there are other pressing issues at hand.
“Oil and gas people in Calgary ask me, ‘How can you call yourself an environmentalist and work in the industry?’ I answer, ‘How can you not be?’ Because the environment is the single biggest issue that the oil and gas industry faces today. And we need to get it right the first time. It’s the right thing to do and it’s good business.”
And it’s been a good business for her - a rewarding one, one she still relishes.
“Geologists put things in perspective. I see myself at the intersection of geosciences, communication and environmental mitigation. I’m an earth scientist. And I have a voice, in terms of the environment.”
No argument there.
But then one more shot at the whole shebang.
“A lot of women who are scientists probably don’t like being called ‘women’ scientists. But many men may not know that,” she said.
They will now.