Woman Apthorpe, Marjorie


Written by Ann Standish, The University of Melbourne

Marjorie Apthorpe is a geologist who has worked for over forty years as a paleontologist in the petroleum industry. As one of the first women employed as a scientist within the male-dominated resources sector, she has consistently broken ground in what has been seen as acceptable work for women in this field, particularly in site work and geo-technical roles.

Apthorpe graduated from the University of Sydney with a BA in Geology in 1963. The following year Her experience with geotechnical engineering projects began in the following year when she was employed by BHP, Melbourne, to work as a palaeontological assistant on their Gippsland and Bass Basin. As her career advanced, she moved to Shell Development as a micropalaeontologist, then from 1973 to 1987 for the Burmah Oil Company, which became Woodside Offshore Petroleum. Here, she rose to become team leader of the stratigraphic laboratory for the company's North-West Shelf Joint Venture, in Western Australia. Her work revolved around age-dating the oil wells at different depths, mainly through microfossils, to assess the likelihood of oil or gas reservoirs being located. Such dating is vital in oil exploration and discovery.

While she had been breaking new ground throughout her career, a major development occurred in 1981, when she and colleague Judy Garstone became the first women to work on an off-shore petroleum drilling rig. Until that time, women had been comprehensively prohibited from off-shore rigs, which were exclusively and sometimes aggressively male areas. This imposed severe limits on women's career prospects as 'lack of practical rig experience' (Apthorpe) hampered their chances of promotion and restricted their attempts to gain seniority. Apthorpe and Garstone were sent to analyse sediment at one of Woodside's offshore wells, where the target petroleum reservoir had not been reached at the expected depth, while it was being drilled. Their task was to advise, on the basis of dating the sediment, whether the reservoir was likely to be deeper than expected and whether Woodside should go on digging. While the women were not totally welcomed by male workers on the rig, the operation was a success. The data showed the drill level was higher than predicted, the advice was to keep drilling and gas was located.

Apthorpe and Garstone spent two weeks working on the rig in 1981, and later that year Apthorpe returned for another two-week stint. She sees these experiences as representing a major breakthrough, the beginning of a new era for women in the industry, writing: 'Women quickly became accepted as part of the team of geologists, reservoir engineers, palaeontologists (usually palynologists) and others who now regularly travel to offshore rigs to work. Young women entering the petroleum industry today are often totally unaware of how recently this acceptance of women occurred' (Apthorpe).

In 1987, Apthorpe established her own business, Apthorpe Palaeontology Pty Ltd., of which she is managing director. Through the consultancy, she continues to work on various geotechnical projects for the petroleum industry and Western Australian government entities. In 2003, she was awarded a PhD from the University of Western Australia, where she is a Research Fellow in the School of Earth and Geographical Sciences, working on a research project compiling a foraminiferal zonation for age dating of petroleum exploration wells. She has published widely in both scientific and trade forums.

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