Unplanned career in geology blazes trail for women

Penny Patterson came to the University of Colorado to study German. She left with three degrees in geology and has since become a leading geological scientist at ExxonMobil. Photo by Noah Larsen.

By Clint Talbott

Penny Patterson came to the University of Colorado to study German. She left with three degrees in geology and has since become a leading geological scientist at ExxonMobil. She is also a pioneer in a field that, when she entered it, had few female faces.

In addition to her career at ExxonMobil, Patterson serves on the Geological Sciences Advisory board at CU-Boulder. At ExxonMobil, she mentors young women in the field.

According to Geological Sciences Chair Lang Farmer, “Her active presence on the board provides our students—both male and female—with a role model of successful women in industry.  This is critical, because although students see women faculty daily, women who have succeeded in industries like oil and gas are less visible.”

This was not her career plan. “I had no intention of becoming a geologist,” Patterson recalls.

After coming to CU as a German major, an adviser told her that she needed to take a natural-science course. She chose geology, which she found captivating enough to take more courses in.

While on a subsequent study-abroad program in Germany, Patterson realized that her career options in the field of German were limited. She could be a translator, but native Germans who grew up in bilingual households knew the language “far better than I ever would.”

Plus, “My heart was in geology.”

That led to a job as a field assistant with the U.S. Geological Survey. The first publication she co-authored in 1976 discussed landslide probability around home sites in the Snowmass, Colo., area.

As much as she enjoyed geology, she realized she needed an advanced degree to pursue it fully. After earning her bachelor’s degree in 1976 at CU, she returned to get her master’s.

With that degree in hand, she spent five years working at the Research Planning Institute, a consulting firm. She returned to CU to get her Ph.D., where she specialized in fluvial sedimentology and stratigraphy and sandstone diagenesis.

Her initial plan was to teach, to become a professor.

“I took job with ExxonMobil and thought I’d be there for one year,” she recalls. “One year will be 22 in November.”

She started at Exxon Production Research Co. Later, she joined Exxon Exploration Co. Today, she works on international oil and gas exploration opportunities for ExxonMobil Exploration Co.

“My career is not as planned,” she observes.

“It’s the professors in the department who inspire people to continue on, whether it’s in the oil industry or in government,” Patterson said. Their inspiration has prompted Patterson to mentor young professionals at ExxonMobil.

“I try to extend the excitement to what we call early career people.” She tells them to “go where your heart is.”

Though she could have become a manager at ExxonMobil, Patterson stayed on the scientific side; she is a senior technical professional adviser.

And while she had harbored ideas of going into the world of higher education, she realized within her first year at ExxonMobil that she would have the opportunity to teach and perform research on a global scale if she stayed with the company.

She has done geological field work in Africa, China, Russia and other countries.

While she’s spent her career in the private sector, Patterson emphasizes the value of the basic research done in university settings. “If you lose that ability to generate new ideas, I think you lose the ability to advance that science.”

When she began studying geology at CU, “there were 150 of us, and two of us were women.” As she continued pursuing her advanced degrees, more women joined her. She noticed a parallel trend at ExxonMobil.

“When I first joined, there were so few of us, the assumption was that when we attended a meeting we were considered to be secretaries or what we’d now call administrative assistants rather than someone who was part of the team.”

In those early days, women tried not to be different. “If you’re in a male type of study, don’t try to stand out. Just try to go with the guys. Get in there and do the same thing. … Throw that backpack on and just start walking.”

That’s more than a metaphor. Patterson notes that while doing field work in other countries, well-intentioned men might try to take a woman’s backpack, believing they were showing respect. “Here in the United States, people don’t try to take your backpack.”

“I think women in geology … tend to be more pioneers than those who look at role models.”

That being said, Patterson acknowledges that young women considering a career in geology do have some female role models. One she notes is Mary Kraus, CU professor and associate dean of natural sciences and former president of the Society for Sedimentary Geology.

“When I talk about women at ExxonMobil now who are 10 or so years behind me …  they are surprised to hear some of the challenges we had,” Patterson says. “We had to have a bit of thick skin.”

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