Sonja Chirico Indrebø, SVP and CIO of Statoil, explores how businesses can encourage women to pursue — and sustain — a career in IT.
A trained engineer, Sonja Chirico Indrebø has been leading IT for multinational oil and gas company Statoil since 2011. Encouraged to choose an atypical route for women from a young age, by the time Indrebø started working in a technical environment she found herself in a distinct minority — only 2% of her network-engineering colleagues were female. But this imbalance did not deter her — it spurred her on to carve out the career path of her choice. “My strongest advice has always been to choose what is right for you — a career you’ll feel energized about for a long, long time.”
Today, different surveys suggest that fewer than 10% of CIOs are women, but Indrebø believes businesses can — and should — play a key role in promoting the role of women across the technology sector and in encouraging more girls to choose that path. As she argues, the onus is on employers to create an environment that is truly positive and welcoming for both genders.
But businesses and public-sector organizations must go beyond this, participating in schemes aimed at driving youth engagement in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects more widely. “There’s an even broader challenge here: promoting the IT discipline to girls and boys in order to ensure we have enough young people going into that STEM environment,” she points out.
Inspiring future technologists
Indrebø believes that such initiatives must be a fundamental component of any business’s corporate social responsibility provision to ensure the workforce for the future — particularly in heavy engineering industries such as oil and gas exploration. Statoil, one of Europe’s top 20 companies with 2014 revenues of NOK622.7 billion ($81.8bn) is involved in multiple schemes, including a $5 million engineering research program with the University of Texas at Austin that extends fellowship awards to young people, focusing on geology, geophysics and petroleum engineering.
“The most effective way to promote the industry is through examples of what we’re doing technically — those stories tend to be the most inspiring for young people,” explains Indrebø. She sees part of her role as visiting universities to talk about the specific activities involved in each of Statoil’s business lines, because in her broad understanding of the business “telling students about the tasks and showing them what they could potentially do says a lot more than all the reports you could write.”
Although she is confident that these techniques are encouraging girls (and boys) into careers in IT, Indrebø acknowledges the challenges that have traditionally arisen for women later in their careers. “When you become a mother, your children will always come first — but you need an employer who is willing to see beyond that, recognizing the need for a balanced life.” And this doesn’t just apply to women, of course — she says Statoil has a strong work/life balance message for all employees, including those with families.
Shifting gender balance
Indrebø attributes Statoil’s relatively high proportion of female IT professionals to these values — more than 30% of its IT workforce is female. The Norway-based company also benefits from a Scandinavian lifestyle — one that “emphasizes opportunities in your personal life and solutions that help women, or parents, stay in work. It’s not just about the tasks or the technology, but the whole environment, your network, and being enabled to prioritize,” she stresses. But there’s still some way to go — until the mechanisms that support this improve further, managing work alongside parenting will continue to be a challenge, she says.
While Indrebø is optimistic about the balance shifting around the world, she adds that it is difficult to pinpoint the biggest driver of change. She believes that a range of forces will work in combination to gradually tip the scales, but this has to start with enabling girls to make an educated choice and understand all the opportunities available to them in the early years of their professional careers.