Sheila O’Brien worked her way up in the energy industry at a time when women had little opportunity and even less respect.
“In the 1970s jobs for women were very limited, so you basically got what was left over. The common view was that there were no competent women,” says Sheila, who, over the course of her pioneering 35-year career, rose through the ranks to become a Senior Vice President at Nova Chemicals. “We were trivialized and marginalized.”
Beyond the lack of opportunity, there were many cultural obstacles seemingly designed to thwart women. Energy industry meeting places like the Petroleum Club and the Ranchman’s Club – venues for important presentations and social gatherings – were closed to women. Clear proof, if more were needed, that women were fighting an uphill battle came when Pat Carney, the federal Minister of Energy in the early 1980s, was denied entry to the Petroleum Club because of her gender. Even advocating for women could get you labeled as a joyless firebrand.
“We were fighting against the attitude that woman were only homemakers with no legitimate role and that feminists were entities with no joy or kindness toward the world,” she says, noting that women’s issues were seen as toxic. Accordingly, she tackled her work with humour, joy and kindness, all the while striving to be “hyper-competent.”
“As a woman, you could not screw up,” she says. “It was a matter of getting on with the job in a gale-force headwind.”
Years on, Sheila continues her lifelong advocacy through the Women’s Issues Network and the Famous 5 Foundation.
She says that while she may have smoothed the path for women who follow her, the work isn’t done yet.
“Women have worked their way up the corporate ladder but they are still not in the corner office,” she says. “The glass ceiling has moved further up but it is still very much there.”