Self-driven and passionate about women and youth empowerment, Mariah Lucciano-Gabriel, Head, Commercial and Business Development, Asharami Energy (A Sahara Group Upstream Company) represents the growing wave of vibrant African professionals committed to transforming the continent. Mariah joined the prestigious Graduate Management Training Programme of the leading energy conglomerate, Sahara Group in June 2008. She was later assigned to Asharami Energy, the Upstream division of Sahara. The programme has produced several leading young energy sector professionals across Sahara’s locations in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. In this interview with Bayo Akinloye, she shares details of her growth in the industry, her passion for mentoring younger women and highlights the need for gender parity at all levels in the energy sector
What is your experience as a senior manager at Sahara Group’s upstream division?
I joined Sahara’s training program at the age of 22 with no prior knowledge or desire to work in the energy industry nor a STEM degree (my first degree was in economics, finance, and management) and after six months of hands-on training within all the Sahara companies which cuts across downstream, midstream, upstream and operations, I was deployed to the upstream arm and asked to coordinate the next internship program simultaneously. These are the sort of opportunities and challenges you face working in a fast-paced innovative company like Sahara.
After a year of juggling both roles, I focused solely on the upstream covering government and partner relations, business development and commercial operations and 10 years down the line I now head the commercial and business development unit of the upstream arm.
The upstream sector of the Nigerian energy industry is a highly regulated and competitive one being that it accounts for over 90 percent of Nigeria’s GDP and as such this brings its own set of challenges to my role. However, I am able to work through problems and achieve solutions because the work environment at Sahara fosters innovation and employees are made to own the vision and given the freedom to be creative around solving problems.
I have been able to thrive in the company because your contributions and successes are valued, recognized and rewarded regardless of gender, age or position. As I say to my colleagues; I don’t work like a man or a woman, I work like someone who needs to get the job done and that is all Sahara sees and that is what is rewarded.
In Sahara, you do not get passed up on a promotion simply because you are female and they fear your family obligations as a woman may conflict with your work obligations. In stark contrast, the company supports you in achieving those obligations so that you are able to better perform at your job and that performance never goes without reward.
What is your greatest achievement in the oil and gas sector?
The interesting thing about being an intrapreneur in a company like Sahara is that the company’s successes are my successes and vice versa. Sahara was one of the first indigenous E&P companies to enter into the Nigerian upstream sector as far back as 2004 as an operator (not just an ‘asset broker’ peddling off assets to IOCs with the technical and financial capabilities) and Sahara has grown its assets organically from exploration through appraisal, development, and production.
I am proud to have been an integral part of its success today by way of Bid participation, government stakeholder engagements and commercial negotiations. I look forward to playing my role in making the company the pre-eminent indigenous producer in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2025 with production in excess of 100,000 barrels of oil production per day.
Having made my mark professionally in the sector, it would be my greatest achievement to reach young girls through sharing my experience and to drive the movement for gender parity at boardroom level in the energy industry on a national level.
Why do you think achieving a balance in the boardroom is important?
It is important not just because we should all have the same rights and opportunities regardless of gender. But also because a boardroom of 10 men of a similar age and similar background are likely to think in the same way and have the same ideas whereas a diverse group of gender, ages and backgrounds would produce innovative ideas that change the status quo and achieve the unthinkable. Furthermore, energy use is not gender neutral, women are more greatly affected by energy availability and policies than men yet you have 89 percent of men at the helm of affairs in terms of decision-making in the energy sector.
The struggle for gender parity cannot truly be achieved without a balanced boardroom because in some cases, even though the men have the intention of achieving a more gender-balanced workforce, they would not know those policies that would help women. I recently spoke around some of these issues on a panel and gave an example of the introduction of a nursing room in Sahara, afterward the CEO of a Nigerian oil-servicing company came up to me and said he was going introduce the same in his company because he didn’t realize something so small could have a great impact on women. It wasn’t because he was unwilling to support his female staff, he just didn’t know how he could because there was no female perspective at the decision making level.
What are some of the perceptions or biases in the African energy industry that hinder women’s entrance or growth and how do can this be overcome?
There’s a dominating perception that the energy industry is for engineers and thus for men mostly, we need to also promote the non-technical but equally important career paths in the energy industry such as Legal, Commercial, Government Relations, Supply Chain, Business Development, etc. Furthermore, many companies have a biased pay structure that favour the men and penalize the women for taking time off for personal/family issues and as such many women exit the industry mid-career because they feel undervalued.
The perception that the energy industry is reserved for men can be pulled down further if successful industry women put themselves out there a bit more so that younger girls have more role models.
We also, need to realize that when we as women get to the top we don’t need to strip away our femininity or bury those female-specific hurdles we had to jump and blend in with the men by replicating the habits of our successful male executives, the world needs our fresh feminine perceptive. We can’t keep sending the message that ‘we need to be men to succeed in this industry’ it discourages younger girls from pursuing this career line. The perception that to be a successful woman in a male-dominated field you must be unmarried or be a bad mother kills many women’s ambition and this perception could not be farther from the truth! According to William Domhoff; author of Women, African American Leaders of Fortune 500 companies, of the 28 women who have served as CEOs of fortune 500 companies, 26 of them were married for over 10 years, minimum.
Mentorship and sponsorship in the workplace are important in reaching the top of one’s career however women are disadvantaged because unconsciously, people are drawn to mentor those that remind them of their younger selves so unconsciously men are drawn to mentor/sponsor younger men and the boardroom in the first place is full of men so no one looking out for the women. Men need intentionally overcome this unconscious bias and take up sponsorship roles for younger promising female talent in the industry and not just provide them guidance but also recommend them for opportunities when possible.
What needs to be done in Africa to encourage the emergence of more women in the sector?
On a foundational level, the government and private sector need to encourage young girls to pursue Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) degrees through workshops and organized school programmes. To start with, many girls don’t even know the career options available to them in Energy industry, it is important to start at the school level to promote the various career paths available both through STEM and Non-STEM pathways because the Energy industry is bigger than just engineering.
Furthermore, younger girls need to see more female role models at the top so they know what can be achieved and be inspired to do more. It is hard to want what you cannot visualize so leading women have a duty to promote themselves more and share their stories with other women.
More critical than just getting women in through the door is retaining and promoting them, a study showed that at entry level there was 35 percent women participation in the industry but as it got to executive level the percentage dropped to eight percent. So women are coming in but the companies are not retaining or promoting them into leading roles. As women, we need to know that there would be sacrifices to be made and the road to the top may not be easy when combined with our roles as nature’s chosen primary caregiver but it is not impossible, we need to use all the support we can get from family and friends and we should be willing to be flexible and think creatively around juggling our roles. If companies are really serious about getting more women in leading positions then they must adopt female-friendly work policies such as nursing rooms, allowance for childcare, flexible work practices, etc to support women and help them achieve their career goals without jeopardizing personal goals.
How do you intend to help younger women find their feet in the industry?
I started making a conscious effort to offer advice to younger girls within my immediate sphere of influence who want to pursue a career in the energy industry. I mentor some younger ladies in the sector. I will continue to strive for excellence in my career and share my stories, challenges, and successes on a wide platform so that younger girls can have not just a role model to emulate in the energy sector but also a blueprint and relatable pathway to help them navigate their careers. It is important for women to know that it can be done despite gender-specific challenges.
Where do you get the inspiration to keep up with the rigours of work in your sector?
The rewards and recognition for my contributions to the company’s success certainly make the countless late nights, early mornings and constant flying worth it but more than anything; I like to WIN! And winning does not come without sacrifice so that keeps me moving.
What is your advice to women junior positions?
Be intentional about your growth, be visible in the workplace, seek assignments and seize opportunities, join and be active in networks.
The road to the top will not be easy or straightforward, stay determined, and be flexible and creative in achieving a balance between the home and workplace. It is not enough to be good at your job and sit quietly in the corner waiting to be noticed and whisked to the C-Suite, you need to break walls, smash windows and take a seat at the table because you deserve to be there, you are doing the world a huge favour by being there and remember that you really can have it all but just not at the same time to know when to pursue what.