Founder of GeoWomen wins award for work with women in geosciences

Jocelyn Keith-Asante's decades of mentorship for women in the field of geoscience and STEM have earned her the 2019 Minerva Mentoring Award — an annual award from the The Alberta Women's Science Network.

Geologist Jocelyn Keith-Asante founded group to mentor, support women in Calgary

The Alberta Women's Science Network gives the Minerva Mentoring Award to one outstanding Albertan who has made significant contributions towards the mentoring of women of all ages. (Ellis Choe/CBC)

Locating new oil and gas deposits may have been her vocation, but fighting for women's rights in the workplace has been her passion.

Jocelyn Keith-Asante has been a professional geologist for nearly 30 years. Her decades of mentorship for women in the field of geoscience and STEM have earned her the 2019 Minerva Mentoring Award — an annual award from The Alberta Women's Science Network.

The award is given to one outstanding Albertan who has made significant contributions toward the mentoring of women of all ages.

Keith-Asante started her career as a technologist, worked her way up to lab supervisor and held several technical roles in different labs at U of C and at Imperial and Robertson Research. In 1990, she went back and got her degree in petroleum geology.

Keith-Asante's decades of mentorship involved work related to anti-racism, women's rights in the workplace, maternity leave, the #MeToo movement and more.

But she may be best known locally as the founder of GeoWomen, an organization devoted to advancing the careers of women in geosciences in Calgary.

The group has monthly speaker series on leadership and mentoring, and aims to support women at all stages of their careers.

For Keith-Asante, helping to found GeoWomen may have been the turning point in her mentoring career.

It started when her brother, a geologist, connected her with a woman from his company, who also happened to be the only technical woman there.

"With my experience, I've often been the only technical woman in companies," Keith-Asante told the Calgary Homestretch. "And when I met her, Mandy Williams, I thought, we just can't do this for us.

"There's a wider group out there that are very isolated — of women in technical jobs in Calgary oil and gas — and because we're both geologists, we started a group called GeoWomen."

Keith-Asante said the organization was designed to network, mentor and support women.

"We do helping people with strategies. Certainly parental leave and those kinds of things, and how women can come back into the workforce," she said. "There are other groups that are specifically aimed at that, but we kind of cover a lot of things."

Getting back into the workplace can be especially challenging for women in the geosciences, she said. 

"It's a very big challenge … when women leave the workforce either to raise their children or for different reasons … they lose out incredibly on getting back into and keeping even with their cohorts," she said.

Keith-Asante said this dynamic can have quite an effect on a woman's career arc.

"The numbers say 20 per cent of women are in technical roles to start, and then it goes down to six per cent on boards, 12 per cent on upper management and one per cent CEOs. So they're weeded out. We are weeded out throughout the system."

Keith-Asante said going on parental leave can bring personal development benefits that most employers are not ready to appreciate.

"When you're on parental leave, when you're taking care of kids, you develop a huge set of social soft skills that you don't develop in a corporate office," she said. "And those kinds of things generally allow women to have a much wider perspective of things." 

Those who do take parental leave, men included, understand that they are better at teamwork, better at thinking and have a wide range of ideas, Keith-Asante said. 

"It's been proven on boards — if you have three [or more] women on boards, you make 15 per cent more money," she said.

Have things changed?

"When I first started, there were women in the school and women graduated not quite at an equal basis, but it wasn't terrible," Keith-Asante said. "Many women did get jobs, but again these are young women. And as soon as they hit their childbearing years, they're weeded out."

When asked whether she's seen changes over the years, Keith-Asante sighed.

"I always hesitate when that question is asked, because — not really."

Keith-Asante said she may have fared differently because she entered the petroleum geology field as an adult.

"I started in the industry when I was a bit older than the 22-year-olds, so I already had quite an attitude and I didn't put up with a lot, and it just made things easier for me," she said. "I kind of accepted the way things were because there's nothing I was going to do — I love geology. I love mapping. I love looking at rocks and that really has carried me through to this day."

Going forward, Keith-Asante said she plans to help women prepare for the changes in the field in general.

"This kind of downturn, I do think the changes are here and are going to stay," she said. "There's a lot of work on data science and there are fewer people needed to do the kind of work that data science can do. So again, GeoWomen has got a panel coming up in the spring that's going to talk to data science and how can we use and transfer skills from what we do in petroleum geology to that end."

For now, she's enjoying her moment.

"I was incredibly humbled," she said. "This is a very prestigious award that's been around for probably 25 years, and I've heard about it quite a bit mentoring women in science generally… when I heard I won it, I was simply overwhelmed."

With files from the Calgary Homestretch.