Maria Moræus Hanssen is a rarity. In the oil industry, where according to Catalyst, women account for a mere 1% of CEOs, she is a “serial CEO.” During a sixteen-year career at Statoil (now Equinor), she rose to senior vice-president. She then assumed her first CEO role of ENGIE’s Norwegian oil exploration affiliate. She developed great respect for ENGIE CEO Isabelle Kocher, 52, the first Frenchwoman to lead a CAC 40 company. Moræus Hanssen was then was appointed designated CEO of DEA (Deutsche Erdoel AG).
With the merger of DEA with oil company Wintershall last May, Moræus Hanssen, 54, became deputy CEO. Now that Wintershall DEA is planning for an IPO, she decided the time was right to step down and reassess what she’s accomplished and what’s next to come.
“The oil price was under $10 a barrel. There was hardly a job [to be found] in the industry,” Moræus Hanssen says of her prospects after graduating from technical university in 1988. It was an inauspicious start to a career that would span nearly 30 years.
In an industry so often characterized by its lack of diversity and women’s struggles to reach positions of leadership, Moræus Hanssen’s story is the antithesis. “There was never a personal barrier for me to break,” she says frankly.
When Moræus Hanssen gives interviews, she often makes it a point to stress that she is Norwegian, acknowledging she is from a country that has long been recognized as a leader in promoting gender equality. However, she also is not hesitant to point out that she has “a couple of personal attributes” that facilitated her ascent to CEO.
“I am ambitious. I am hard working. I’m not a ‘comfort seeker,'” she says. It runs in the family. Her mother, Ingeborg, now 81, was the CEO of Oslo Kinematografer (now Oslo Kino); “So it’s not as if I personally, within my family, have had any glass ceilings to break. My parents and brother didn’t expect any less of me, and my husband and kids have always been super supportive.”
While she holds both a master’s degree in petroleum engineering and petroleum economics, and did course work toward a Ph.D., her advice to the up and coming generation is a bit unorthodox. “Don’t worry so much about your education. My experience is that almost everything you actually know about the industry or your [role], you learn on the job,” she says, recounting her own start as a reservoir engineer with the oil and gas arm of Norsk Hydro in 1991.
Gaining field experience is one of the hurdles facing women in the industry and, once they move into leadership roles, it becomes all the more difficult, another reason Moræus Hanssen is appreciative of her time as a reservoir engineer and, later, an offshore installation manager (OIM).
“The philosophy of Norsk Hydro was that, if you had potential and wanted to be a leader, it was important to be in the sharp end of the business.”
Another way in which Moræus Hanssen has gone against the grain in her career is to change jobs. She notes that statistics show women tend to “fade away” mid-career when the gender imbalance becomes more apparent and she feels that moving to different companies within the industry may have insulated her from the feelings of isolation many women experience.
“People get tired of being in the minority. There is a time when you say, ‘Honestly, why am I doing this? Why do I have to go the extra mile and be that odd person in the room?’”
Moræus Hanssen points out that she became CEO in French and German companies, which perhaps have a more enlightened attitude toward female leadership, and says she owes her “big roles” to two people – Isabelle Kocher, CEO of ENGIE, and Lord John Browne, Executive Chairman of LetterOne (L1) Energy and Chairman of Dea.
She characterizes them as “the type of leaders that appreciate diversity and difference, and [who are not] looking for the stereotype model [of leadership]” – something which is critical as companies go through the energy transition.
“I have been working since 1991 and participating in a very exciting period in Norway in terms of oil and gas,” says Moræus Hanssen. However, she leaves during a time of unprecedented disruption in the industry with the changing demographics in the workforce, the move to alternative fuels and, not least, the discussion around climate change.
Moræus Hanssen freely admits, “I don’t have the solution. I clearly see what is happening. I’m absolutely not a climate denier. [Fossil fuels are] not something we can shut down today. The real uncertainty is, how fast is this transition going to go?
“A turning period in my career was the years I spent in ENGIE where [CEO] Isabelle Kocher really turned around [the company],” – a strategy Moræus Hanssen calls “extremely provocative” – “trying to become a frontrunner in the energy transition. They really changed course.”
Acknowledging the challenges facing the industry, Moræus Hanssen says she deliberately has chosen to spend quite a bit of time talking about the issues because, “I think it’s important that we internally, in the industry, also communicate that we truly acknowledge the problem and we don’t leave the debate to those who are actually against us. We need to transform, to be part of the solution.
“In Europe we talk a lot about the coal to gas switch, which is a real contributor to the climate goals, should we be successful in doing that. It is also a super important element in Winthershall Dea’s strategy in providing Europe with gas.
“That’s the only thing to be said. [Given] Wintershall Dea’s ambitions – growth and going to the stock market, planning for an IPO – I think it was fair of me to inform the shareholders and the supervisory board I would not be there for that type of time horizon.”
She cites the unsustainability of continuing to live away from “home” (Norway) after six years, being apart from husband Klaus-Anders Nysteen, CEO of an international bank headquartered in Stockholm, and commuting between homes in three countries.
“The plan is to relocate to Norway, have a Christmas holiday, and then start thinking about what comes next. I do see myself in the energy industry. How much oil and gas versus renewable energy, I don’t know. I don’t have anything up the sleeve. I’m very open.”
“If you look at Norway, we seem to have the structures in place. It’s a very gender-equal society. In the universities, we have more than 50% women, and we still lack a lot of [female] leaders, not just oil and gas, but all other [industries]. I’m quite often asked, ‘How is it? The opportunities are there. Why don’t the girls choose this?’
“I think quite often that they lack role models. You see all these brilliant girls go into other jobs. Industry – not only oil and gas – has a job to do, to tell how valuable it is to work in the industry, to actually contribute, to create value, to pay taxes, make jobs for people; therefore, I have chosen to spend a bit of my time being a model for people to see that there are women out there and they have good lives, exciting lives.”