By Stephen Forrester
When talking about women in the modern oil field—on or off the water—you might hear about how they want to advance into leadership positions, have field jobs the same as men, and how they make a unique difference. Despite significant progress over the past few decades, however, there is still work to be done on achieving true equality. In this story, contributing writer Stephen Forrester interviews a woman who dealt with many different challenges while moving forward in her career.
A subsea well intervention engineer at Chevron, Vicki Corso’s career has spanned more than three decades off and on various vessels that took her to a number of oil rig platforms. Growing up the oldest of three siblings in Illinois, Corso was something of a tomboy; she enjoyed working on old cars with her father and getting her hands dirty, eschewing the typical Barbie dolls and princesses. After a bit of moving around led her to Corpus Christi, Texas, for high school, Corso made the decision to go to Texas A&M. “It wasn’t really about the degree,” she says, “it was about the fact that back then, A&M was cheaper.”
Wanting to do work that allowed her to use her analytical mind and engage her love of hands-on projects, Corso started studying engineering technology. She also got an internship in a chemical plant in the maintenance department cleaning distillate towers, connected through her father, a long-time upper management employee. All in all, things seemed to be looking pretty good for her future and career path.
“I Don’t Hire Women”
Fresh out of school, Corso asked her father for help getting a job at the Houston-area facility, but he then said something that totally surprised her: “I don’t hire women.” While her father had been extremely helpful and encouraging as she pursued her studies and earlier work, this shocked her. Left to her own devices, Corso hit the interview circuit, but found that many companies had a similar ideology—women were better left at home with the kids or cooking dinner in the kitchen, their dreams and education perplexingly unrelated to where their lives were supposed to head.
After some time, Corso interviewed with a large company that made heavy equipment for agriculture. After acquiring a surface wellhead company, they needed talent to help build up the new organization. Rather than hiring on skill, though, the hiring manager point-blank admitted to hiring Corso because she was a woman, telling her that it would help them avoid a lawsuit. “They had to hire at least one woman because there was a lawsuit against them for discriminatory hiring practices,” she says, “and so they told me today was my lucky day and hired me on the spot.”
The time should have been ripe for a young engineer to join the industry: regulations for surface wellheads were in their infancy, and computers and technology were becoming viable investments to stimulate growth. Furthermore, disasters like the Piper Alpha platform destruction had motivated additional research and development to improve equipment design and safety. The reality for a female engineer working with an entirely male team, however, was anything but pleasant.
“When I started in the office, the guys told me, ‘We don’t want you here,’ and ‘We only have to put up with you for six months,’” Corso recalls, “and it was a pretty rough time because they wouldn’t train me. They wanted me to bring them their magazines, turn the coffee pot on, answer the phones—stuff like that.” In what to Corso felt like a game, the men at the office started sending Corso out to jobs despite her lack of training, suiting her up in oversized men’s coveralls to meet the company men. The reaction was negative, and Corso says she often got sent back to the office, the only outcome being time and resources wasted.
Undeterred, Corso pressed on past the prophesized six-month termination date, and after a year of suffering in relative silence, decided enough was enough. “If I had problems, I realized I just had to deal with them myself,” she says, “because no one would stand up for me but me. So, I became my own strongest advocate.”
It was the mid-1980s, and laws were also beginning to shift. Ultimately, Corso ended up managing the very team that had originally shunned her. “It really was kind of funny,” she remembers, “because they basically had to elect a new leader after the previous guy left. And I had done such a good job despite all the challenges I’d faced that they picked me. They really weren’t bad guys. It was just the time we were in.” A little while later, Corso had children, and decided to take a break from work to be a stay-at-home mother.
Ready to go back to work, Corso began hopping around jobs in various engineering roles. She ended up at National Oilwell for a time, leading the wellhead group in the mid-1990s. At Vetco, the next job, she was working 80-hour weeks to survive the downturn, but she hit the glass ceiling—not only was she a woman, but the general perception was that engineers were not good project managers. Leaving Vetco, she went to a large EPCI company to learn how to build spars. “And boy,” she interjects, “that company was like a true, good old boys’ club: male-dominated culture, right up to the boardroom.” She ended up managing their riser systems program, but her career was again stymied by her gender.
On a major project for an independent oil company, a male colleague felt he had to throw his weight around by challenging her competencies in experience and technical know-how. “He told me, ‘I’m not going to have some girl tell me what I need to do on my project,’” she says, not upset, but laughing at the absurdity of the statement, “and so, even though I had a better solution, I just thought, OK, it is what it is.” She moved forward, and the successes kept coming: working for Anadarko and Hess managing their tension-leg platform (TLP) risers. Times were changing, and she was building a name for herself and respect in the oil and gas marketplace.
In possibly her biggest role, Corso went to work for BP during the Macondo Prospect incident. “I was invited to the containment team because I’d been a team player,” she says, “because they knew that I could bring people together. They didn’t want someone who was only about the ‘I’; they wanted someone who understood and could cultivate the ‘we.’”
She ended up co-leading the team that developed the containment system for the incident; an enormous undertaking that not only succeeded, but also became the system used by Marine Well Containment Company (MWCC). “This was something I really was proud of to be a part of,” she says. “We had a huge team, almost 125 people, and we had to understand and trust each other under extreme pressure to get it right–the first time–to develop the concept and go for it. Normally a project this immense takes four years to complete. We did it in three months while still following every stage gate, every regulation, every design code, and every rule. And we did all this, and we built it, installed it, commissioned it, flowed through it, decommissioned it, and put it through the rigors of ‘legal hold.’ It was the only system like it. Basically, that’s how MWCC came about.”
In her latest role, Corso is at Chevron, where she’s done work on the Big Foot TLP for more than two years. This work has mostly been riser system design assurance reviews for the massive project. Something she’s also been eager to do is continue to promote a culture of diversity and inclusion at the company. Corso says that Chevron has a program called MARC: Men Advocating Real Change.
“And what it’s about,” she continues, “isn’t just women, it’s about starting a dialogue, trusting each other, getting to know each other, overcoming misconceptions. Because men and women, people of various cultures—we’re all different, and that’s OK. We don’t have to be the same.”