Attending Industry Conventions

Convention site this year

Convention site this year

This week I attended the 78th (+/-) annual convention of the Gas Processors Association. (I’ve heard all of the jokes. Thank you anyway).  I’ve been attending these meetings since 1989, serving on various technical committees affiliated with various nerd engineer stuff like facility design and optimization, and for the past five years on the program committee. I’ve missed perhaps 5 meetings, for conflicts that included breaking my ankle the day before the meeting, and two different times, being on cruises with friends from the College of Curiosity (formerly Skeptours). very important conflicts in my mind. The energy industry was in bad straits in the late 1980s and early 1990s, due to historic low oil and gas prices, and typically only higher level employees, executives, and business development types were authorized to go, so I was often one of the youngest people there even in my early 30s.

Between meetings - note the demographics

Between meetings – note the demographics

The business developers would come to play golf and network with other business types, and would scoff “why would a company send engineers to this” when most of the three-day session is actually technical papers.

I remember thinking that everyone there was really old, like…60. The entertainment for the closing party back in those days were acts like the Kingston Trio, Janie Fricke (a country singer), and Asleep at the Wheel (country band).  This year, it was comedian Bill Engvall.  I remember sitting near the rear of the general sessions, looking the backs of around 500 men in somber gray or navy suits, and see perhaps three women. Women attended, but they were always wives that came along and would shop or do tourist stuff during the day. I always dressed somberly and business-like, so fewer people would assume I was, too, there as a wife. Women were so rare that from year to year, most men would recognize me.  The conference used to be around 800 people, but lately each year has a new record attendance – this year there were over 2400 registrants.  I counted about 30 women. Woo-hoo, we are taking over!

Which is why I always maintain that the skeptics meetings I attend are virtual chickfests. Sometimes there are 20% women!

There was a line to operate this virtual race car.

There was a line to operate this virtual race car.

In fact, for many years there were extra events called Wives Luncheon, and Wives Outing Events. The events would be trips to shopping meccas, or garden shows, or tea parties. Sometime in the later years, the name changed to “Spouse Activities” but were still the same activities. I just realized this year that those field trips and luncheons have been missing from the agenda for the past few years.  They also have an International Registrants breakfast, attended by Europeans, Canadians, Indians, and Arabs from various oil-producing countries. My Hindu friend A.C., who has been attending as long as I have, says  there is always bacon and sausage on the menu. He’s complained for years, to no avail.

Yesterday, as I was catching up with people I’ve known for 20 to 30 years, I noticed that most of them have gotten really gray. Some of them are grandparents! What’s up with that? A couple of years ago, the convention was in New Orleans. My friend and co-blogger Jeff Wagg came and went to some of the dinners and receptions with me. He commented on the demographics: middle-aged white dudes. Still, mostly in their 50s. This week, my son and his partner came to the opening reception, sponsored by vendors such as compressor packagers and valve salesmen. (Richard is studying mechanical engineering and worked in the industry one year). Afterwards, he told me “Wow, there is mostly middle-aged white dudes here. What’s up with that?”

My favorite hospitality room had this great Belgian amber, but the glass was a foot tall and felt a bit silly.

My favorite hospitality room had this great Belgian amber, but the glass was a foot tall and felt a bit silly.

A few years ago they started a Young Engineer’s Forum. To qualify, you must be under 40

After so many years, I no longer try to fill the day with attending various presentations. I was chairman for a technical forum on NGL and gas treating one morning. Instead of attending one of the luncheons, followed by more papers, a nap, and then dinner meetings, I drove around Dallas a bit and then found a yarn shop. I did go to the various vendor receptions that evening. Jeff, who used to attend a lot of various conventions as part of his job, remarked on how sedate ours seemed. The closest you’ll see to a ‘booth babe’ might be a women sales manager for a heat exchanger company. Until 5-6 years ago, the standard dress was coat and tie, day and night.

At some of the really big energy conventions like the Offshore Technology Conference, which had over 100,000 attendees in its heyday, planes of prostitutes were flown in to handle the overflow. The wildest thing you’ll see at the GPA is an attractive woman serving drinks in the hospitality suites, but they are usually one of the salesmen’s wives, or the company secretary.

Here, I want to make sure you understand that in 25 years of attending this organization’s convention, I’ve never been harassed or made to feel that I did not belong because I’m female. It might be somewhat boring, but it’s very professional, and I think the tolerance level for any bad behavior towards women or any other group would not be tolerated, unlike what I’ve read about IT conferences, where women are the butt of rude comments for daring to infiltrate a ‘male’ dominion.

Except maybe that one time a guy tried to Do the Bump in a venue that was playing late 70s music. 



No gimmick, no one comes to your suite. But, on the plus side, you have a really low bar tab.

No gimmick, no one comes to your suite. But, on the plus side, you have a really low bar tab.

The hospitality suites are interesting. Gone are the days of the ‘casino nights’ where you gambled with tokens, and then bid on prizes: TVs (before flat screens), shotguns, golf clubs. But most of the larger companies still have a gimmick, whether it be a jazz or rock band, games, desserts and gourmet coffees, or an ice cream bar. This year, I found a Belgian beer sampling room – done in a Wild West theme but with all the servers dress like monks, a video game room, a cigar bar, and a room with celebrity impersonator singers.

Marilyn Monroe was a big hit, dressed from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes but singing an Aretha Franklin song.


Women in Engineering

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3 replies

  1. this seems like great “fun”….but they need to give away tvs and such again!

  2. I can relate to the lack of women at industry conferences. My husband attended an HVAC conference with me a few years ago. With “spouse” programs like “Fashion to Flatter your Figure” and shopping tours, he was not impressed. Though everyone was very professional, I felt very awkward. Oddly, made special welcome bags for the handful of women attendees – a bright pink bag instead of the blue bags that everyone else received. I’m sure it was meant to be considerate, but it just made me feel MORE awkward. I can’t wait for the day that we’re not so drastically a minority in STEM and the trades.

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