Last updateThu, 13 Dec 2018 5pm


Women in the Valve Industry

sheri_updikeWhile women are making great strides in many industries, there is still a sizeable gap between the number of men and women in oil and gas, mining, utilities and pulp and paper. In 2009, the gap actually widened, with many women leaving top level positions in those industries as the economy slowed. Currently less than 10% of executive and board member positions in oil and gas companies are held by women.

As the economy slowly rebounds, we spoke with some industry experts to survey the current state of affairs and what opportunities are on the horizon for women in the valve and affiliated industries.

Bill Sandler, President of VMA, said, “When I started with VMA in 1977 you could count the number of women in the industry on your two hands. There were a few, mainly in marketing and communications. Now 35 years later there are women in all areas of the valve industry, including manufacturing, engineering, executive management, etc. VMA boosts among its committees women volunteers on our communications (3), finance leaders (2), and manufacturers committees. Additionally, two years ago, we added the first woman to our Board of Directors and in 2008, for the first time in its 35 year history, VMA’s most distinguished award, our Person-of-the-Year Award, was given to a woman (Colleen VanderVelde, General Manager, Cameron-DYNATORQUE).”

While it is no surprise that women are embracing careers in traditionally male-dominated industries, it is still unusual, so we asked three powerful women what prompted them to enter this industry.

Stacy Passaro is an engineer and one of the few women in the country involved in large wastewater projects. With twenty years of experience in wastewater treatment, she owns her own consulting firm which provides operations & maintenance related services for collection systems and wastewater treatment facilities. In response to our question, she laughed. “A few contractors have asked me that. But I don’t know that it’s just about being a woman that makes this choice unusual. In wastewater, it’s pretty rare to find somebody who says, ‘I always dreamed of being a wastewater person.’ Wastewater picks us, we don’t pick it. When I was a junior at college, I applied for a co-op position and got placed in the wastewater group. It was just a happenstance placement. The first time I was ever in a wastewater plant, it was on a tour when I was taking the “Intro to Wastewater” class. I had just found out that it was to be my co-op placement. During the tour, all the guys were teasing me that I would have to stir the tanks. I remember being a little worried, a little anxious about what I was going to end up doing. But I worked there 8 months, and then went back there when I graduated.”

Sheri Roberts-Updike (pictured above) is the first woman appointed to the Valve Manufacturers’ Association Board of Directors. She began her career as a chemist, and joined Shell in 1989 after receiving her MBA. She was appointed President, Tyco Valves & Control, LP and Vice President, Global Oil & Gas, for Tyco Flow Control in May 2010. We asked her, “What attracted you to the Valve industry?”

“I wasn’t attracted to the valve industry,” she replied. “It was Tyco. I was 21 years with Shell in various roles, so I came from oil and gas and petrochemicals. At the time, Tyco was restructuring and wanted somebody who had oil and gas experience. It was attracted to the opportunity and had that background to serve this particular industry. I didn’t come from the valve industry and I don’t mind saying I don’t know everything about valves – there is always something to be learned. I took the Valve Basics course in March. Probably, for me, it was a little bit better to understand more about the business and then go to the valve basics course. It is similar to working before you get your master’s degree.”

engineeringstillConnie Karry is Controller at Cameron - DYNATORQUE Inc., and has been involved in the financial aspects of valve manufacturing for 24 years. Karry’s background is in finance and manufacturing, so her move into the valve industry wasn’t necessarily about valves. In her response to our question, she said, “I wasn’t looking for any specific industry. I was looking for challenge and advancement. I’ve been in the finance industry since college, and the way I ended up here was not deliberate. Someone at a bank I worked with knew there was an opening for a controller at DYNATORQUE, and that was where I got into the valve industry. Accounting is accounting no matter what manufacturing environment, so it wasn’t a big stretch at all.”

We wondered about the unique challenges that a woman could face in a male dominated industry.

Passaro replied, “It can be intimidating for some because there aren’t many women. The percentage of women in engineering hasn’t gone up much in the last 20 years. There are situations that occur where it is very obvious that you are very different from everybody else in the room. But I never thought of it at all as a downside to my career. When you first start to work with someone, you notice all the superficial aspects, gender, hair, etc. But as soon as you do start working with people, you get to know about the person underneath and all that superficial stuff drops away.”

“I have only worked in primarily male dominated industries-oil and gas and petrochemicals, so I don’t really have a good comparator,” responded Roberts-Updike. “When I was CEO for Shell in Mauritius I was interviewed on the radio and the host asked what it was like being the only female leader from any industry in the whole country. He asked ‘What’s it like being a female in a totally male environment?’ I answered, ‘Well, I’ve never been male, so I really can’t compare.’ “What I can say about working in a male dominated industry is that you do pick up what I would call “stereotypical male behaviors” because you have to survive. I was fortunate, that, when I lived in The Hague in 2000, I facilitated a diversity value creation team for Royal Dutch Shell. One of the items the team debated was whether the women in Shell were men disguised as women. It was very interesting to have that discussion, but it’s true that you have to change your behaviors – to survive, you had to do that. However, as you become more recognized for your skill and experience, you can bring in more of yourself.”

“Some of the challenges are probably the same that many females face in any industry,” responded Karry. “Although in my discipline in this industry, I have never experienced not being taken seriously. And I have to say that the valve industry is great. My challenges have been more centered around the business itself and not my role as a woman in it.”

We asked our trailblazers about their early experiences.

Karry remembers. “When I first started, I was the only woman at the annual meetings. A couple of hundred people would attend. Now, there are always several women. And at Cameron-DYNATORQUE, our plant manager, Colleen VanderVelde is a female. She was voted person of the year at one of the VMA meetings. And we’re not a huge company, but we also have a female engineer and our ratio here is very good.”

“At Shell I started in sales in 1989. All of the university hires in my recruiting group were women,” responded Roberts-Updike. “At that time, Shell recruited sales talent out of university. Shell hired chemical engineers and chemists for these roles and there were more women in chemical engineering and chemistry disciplines when I graduated. The oil and gas industry was sparse for women in 1989.”

How does that compare to the situation now?

Roberts-Updike responded again. “I would say that from a valve industry perspective, that there are far fewer women than there are in end user companies. We certainly don’t have enough. In Tyco, I have one female colleague on the leadership team with me. In our sales pool, there is room for improvement. I tell this story jokingly, when we (Tyco) had the first global sales meeting in November, 2010, there were 220 sales reps and managers in the room. There was one woman sales rep from Korea. I said to the team, “I am pretty confident, 99.9% sure, that we graduate female engineers so I hope to see more women in the room in the future.”

female engineering student“The 2011 facts now show that we graduate more females than males and the scale has now tipped in that 60% of graduates are female, more than male. So if you choose not to look at the total graduate pool out of university, male and female, then you’re choosing from a much smaller population, so you may not get the best candidates. Our demographics are going to force a change in the industry.”

Karry was very enthusiastic about the direction the industry has taken. “From what I’m hearing, finance and engineering are two of the hot fields for women to get into. There is a huge need for financial controls, due diligences, so there is huge opportunity there, and in engineering as far as new products and safety, so I can see those are two fields that are growing and would be attractive to both men and women. Sometimes the valve industry seems to move at a different pace than the rest of the economy and there are lots of challenges, but it’s an exciting time for a great industry.”

Passaro agrees that there are positive changes with respect to women in industry, but she has concerns about the lack of people of both sexes going into the engineering and science fields. She said, “North America has been known for engineering and innovation and it’s sad when you look at the numbers and education and kids and what they’re going on to do in their under and post graduate work. They’re not going into technology. It terrifies me, because we need all of the best brains on the planet, all plugged in and working on really smart, sustainable solutions to our problems.

“I have 12 and 8 year old daughters and I don’t want them to have gender play at all in what they’re doing. I want them to find something that’s interesting to them and contributes to the greater good.”

For young women considering the valve industry or engineering as a career possibility, there were words of encouragement.

“I would say, Amen! And welcome aboard,” enthused Passaro. “I’ve worked with a couple of guys who have teenage daughters. They asked me to talk to their daughters to give them a woman’s perspective, and I’ve done some interviews with some young women in college and in high school and talked about the career. The whole world is out there for them.”

“I see a huge opportunity because of the changing demographics,” reported Roberts-Updike. “And there’s been a lot of work by non-profits to get girls interested in science, technology, and engineering fields. They work with young girls to help them gain a better appreciation for those fields. I would encourage a young woman in engineering.” She continued, “The opportunities in employment are vast as compared to other disciplines. Those degrees are also transportable into multiple skill pools. These degrees offer the thinking process that companies are looking for in the future. It is recognized by companies that the engineering, science and technology fields can be applied to multiple disciplines, and I’m not so sure that some other degrees are as appreciated as much as these for multiple skill pools.”

In addition to enthusiasm about the industry itself, Karry offered this observation about the Valve Manufacturers Association. “I can also say that compared to other organizations I’ve dealt with in the past, the VMA has such camaraderie regardless of your gender. It’s much more inclusive. The speakers and presentations are very relevant – economics, competition, sales, how to increase – anything that has to do with finance. I’ve never felt excluded.”

Kate Kunkel is Senior Editor of Valve Magazine. Reach her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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