Trading their way to the top

Trading their way to the top

The world of trading has historically been dominated by men. But things are changing. Shell’s global trading operations will soon be headed up by three women: Stacie Pitts, Carolyn Comer and Alice Acuna. On International Women’s Day they talk to Inside Energy about visibility, calling out inequality and how to deal with being the only woman in the room.

By Bryony MacKenzie on Mar 7, 2021


“The greatest thing that can happen in anyone’s career is you train someone, and they ultimately become your boss. That means you have done a really good job.”

Stacie Pitts is the newly appointed Head of Crude Oil Trading. She is based in Houston, USA. She takes up the role this August.

When people ask me how I got here what I can tell you is that I have stumbled, I have failed, but I never quit, and I stayed true to myself. I knew what I loved, and I knew what I was good at. I also know what I am not good at.

When I started trading in liquid petroleum gas there were probably more females than in any other commodity and I would see more disparity in age than gender.

I covered the Midwest of the USA and everyone there had been with their suppliers for years and years. People would go to lunch with me, but nobody would buy any LPG. But there was a moment I will never forget - a golf tournament in Kansas.

Again, everyone had their set foursomes that had been going for 20 years, but I went in as a single and I shot one over par. Suddenly everybody wanted to buy propane from me.

What that taught me was it doesn’t matter if we have different religions or different genders, you find that commonality with whoever you are speaking or trying to do business with, even in an uncomfortable situation.

One of the big issues people raise with me is work-life balance, and when I travel, I see the cultural difficulties that some women in leadership positions are facing.

I can relate because it was something that I went through maybe 10 years ago, where you work very hard but maybe are not moving up as fast as some of the men.

What I am specifically focusing on is that people know that there is an opportunity. Even though you may not be 100% qualified, you put yourself out there.

I cannot tell you how many times I have interviewed people for one job and ended up giving them a different job.

I am at the point in my career where it is still about making money, but equally about developing and creating great leaders. I do that through encouragement, empowerment and recognition.

The greatest thing that can happen in anyone’s career is you train someone, and they ultimately become your boss. That means you have done a really good job.

Carolyn Comer

“It is important I use my position to make a difference to other people.”

Carolyn Comer is the new Vice President for Shell Energy Americas. She is taking up the role, based in Houston, next month.

I come from an Irish family of six, including four brothers, so growing up, gender was never an issue. We were all the same.

Both my parents worked. In fact, unusually for those times my mother had a full-time job as a consultant anesthetist where she worked weekends so there was never any question about women not having a career.

I have been lucky that I have not experienced notable discrimination, although I do remember my first experience of casual bias.

It was my first meeting with an external company we were working with. We all sat down in the meeting, all men and just me, the lone woman. Someone turned round and said: “You can take the minutes.”

I paused and replied: “Oh sorry, I’ve forgotten to wear my skirt, but don’t worry, I will be sure to wear my skirt to take notes in next time.”

They all looked around, uncertain if I was joking or not, but for me the best way to kill that situation was to use humor. In fact, I did take the minutes that week, but I told them it was going to rotate around so it would be shared equally.

I have been very lucky to have some great mentors and sponsors along the way who have helped me with my career.

Being actively engaged with female careers via coaching and mentoring has, from the beginning of my career, been important to me.

For example, when the Black Lives Matter movement started it was apparent not enough was being done to mentor black women in Shell, so I reached out to a few people and now I personally mentor and sponsor two women.

It is important I use my position to make a difference to other people.

If I were to look at my career highlights so far I would say being part of the senior executive group of a hundred or so people among the 80,000-plus who work at Shell is one of those, and that is because you’re in the room and having the right conversations to effect change. That is so important.

Alice Acuna

“Learning about yourself, your business, what is happening around you and most importantly, not having an issue with saying, ‘I don’t know, I don’t understand, can I try again?”

Alice Acuna will be the new Head of Liquefied Natural Gas Trading from this August, based in Singapore.

I started as an analyst in the Shell distribution office within the refinery in Paraguay where we managed the fuel delivery across the country.

I was the first ever woman in that office and that refinery, so there were no female toilets for example, but that is a story that you will hear from many women who work in oil.

At a more junior level it became common for me to walk into a room and not have any other women around. I never thought about it to be honest. I just assumed ‘this is the way it is’.

However, that changed the day I joined the board meeting of one of our projects in southern Europe. I was taking over as a Director from a male colleague who was retiring. The Chairman greeted him and asked, without looking at me, why he had brought his young assistant along.

I still remember the surprise on his face when I handed him my card and he realised I was the new board member.

I know many of my female colleagues experienced similar situations, and we always laugh about it.

However, as you grow in your career, you start realising that unless you make a conscious effort to support diversity, diversity doesn’t just happen by itself.

In my case, I was blessed with great mentors and, in turn, I started to mentor younger colleagues. I also helped the agenda by simple actions, such as being very conscious on how we set up interview panels and pushing to ensure we have enough recruits from different backgrounds, because diversity is not only about gender.

I am from Paraguay, which is a small country, so having someone like me able to reap these types of big international roles, hopefully gives hope and shows what is possible.

One of the things I am often asked is: ‘how did you do it, what is your secret?’ What I would say is learning. Learning about yourself, your business, what is happening around you and most importantly, not having an issue with saying: “I don’t know, I don’t understand, can I try again?”

You also need to know when it is time to stop, when you need to rest, when you need to recharge. In 2013 I had to take time off because I was completely burned out and that was a defining moment.

For someone like me, super hardworking, having to take time off was like a slap in the face, but I emerged so much stronger from there.

I have become much more compassionate with myself, and I can assure you, it made me a better leader. So, when you feel overwhelmed, take a step back, reflect on what you need to learn, taking one step at a time.

Most importantly don’t ever hesitate to raise your hand to ask for help.

The bigger picture

“Despite some progress in the workplace in the last few years, gender stereotypes are still entrenched in our societies and workplaces,” says Sudarsana Kundu, co-executive director at Gender at Work, an organisation focused on promoting gender equality in the workplace.

“Currently, women make up less than 10% of executive directorships in FTSE100 companies”, she says, “and research shows that for women to aspire to rise to leadership positions, role models are vital. This is even more true for women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), where there are fewer women role models.”

Carol Miller, co-executive director at Gender at Work adds: “Women leaders assist in improving women’s recruitment and retention by creating a sense of belonging, providing a clear path of progression, and by dispelling myths around women’s leadership and performance as well as helping to create the space for others to enter the STEM pipeline.”

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