Denise Cox, then AAPG president-elect 2017, at the Rock Star exhibit, exuberantly celebrates 100 of her female predecessors in the geosciences.

New Era for AAPG as Executive Committee Has Potential to Achieve Equal Representation

“I was honored to represent women in that breakthrough,” Robbie Gries says of being named the first woman president of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) in 2001, eighty-four years after the founding of the organization. Since then, two other women – Randi Martinsen and Denise Cox – have served as president but, as the position carries only a one-year term, so have 16 men. In the 2020 election, both candidates for president-elect – Gretchen Gillis and Susan Morrice – are women. While that’s not a first, if all the women running win their offices, the executive committee potentially could see equal representation with four men and four women holding office, which could have a profound impact on the future of the organization. In contrast, the current eight-member executive committee has one female officer, Secretary Stephanie Nwoko, whose two-year term runs through 2021.

Gries credits past president Jack Parker (1983-84) with “starting a revolution. He saw the future and decided to make a change.” Noticing there were no women in positions of leadership, no female committee chairs, and few female award winners, Parker issued an “executive order” to have a woman on each committee and, by the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, Gries says 25 percent of the AAPG committees were chaired by women and the path was paved for several hundred to receive awards since then.

In 1994, Gries was asked to chair the international convention, which ultimately led to her becoming president. She calls the timing “serendipitous,” as AAPG had just expanded to six international regions. During her tenure, she chose to visit all six, something she calls “an exceptional [experience]. We introduced the world to the fact that AAPG had female leadership.”

Breaking 84 years of tradition, Robbie Gries made history as AAPG’s first female president (2001-2002).
Breaking 84 years of tradition, Robbie Gries made history as AAPG’s first female president (2001-2002).

Gries says AAPG’s Visiting Geoscientists, who come from different countries and cultures, and represent the diversity found globally within AAPG, and who travel the world talking to students, are the “best representation of who [we] are.”

The 2017 book Anomalies – Pioneering Women in Petroleum Geology: 1917-2017 is Gries’ legacy. When she initially proposed celebrating the first 100 women in AAPG to the affinity group, then called Prowess (now AAPG Women’s Network – AAPGWN), she said none of them had any idea how long women had belonged to the organization. “We thought maybe since the ‘50s,” and calls it a “miracle” that AAPG had not thrown away the old membership files, which were gathering dust in the basement.

“We were shocked to realize that the first women joined in 1919,” but in her research Gries discovered women had entered the business even before then. “That treasure of old membership cards was illuminating. No one – men or women – knew women were going out on the rigs in the ‘20s and ‘30s. No clue at all.”

“I never imagined [living in] Laramie, Wyoming, that I would be elected AAPG’s president,” Randi Martinsen says of becoming the second woman to hold that office 12 years after Robbie Gries made history. Her first boss may have set a precedent when he put applications to several professional organizations on her desk with the expectation that she would join them.

“When I joined AAPG, it was the essential source for science and geoscience. Part of being a professional is belonging to professional societies,” she says, calling the network she formed “incredibly beneficial.”

Randi Martinsen, AAPG’s second female president (2014-15), in the Valley of Fire, Nevada (circa 1973).
Randi Martinsen, AAPG’s second female president (2014-15), in the Valley of Fire, Nevada (circa 1973).

“I don’t know that you can form the bonds remotely that you can form in person working together in groups.”

“I left industry when it was booming in the late ‘70s because I got married and my husband was a professor at the University of Wyoming. I thought I was putting my career on the back burner. I gave it five years and, if I wasn’t professionally satisfied, we’d have to come to another arrangement.” Once there, the university asked Martinsen to teach. She was still consulting as a geologist, but when the mid-80s downturn hit, the university asked her to take on more responsibility.

“Rather than diminishing my career, teaching was a different path. I never expected that I would end up teaching at a university and have a long career there – or be elected AAPG president from Wyoming.”

“That was one of my messages as President: Don’t be afraid to take a new or different path because you never know where it will lead you.”

Three years after Martinsen’s tenure, Denise Cox became AAPG’s third female president (2018-19). “What’s really important to me,” she says now, “is the energy transition and the role of petroleum – we’re at a tipping point – and how we’re going to embrace the future of energy. How can we work as an industry, as individuals, and as a diverse group of geoscientists to come up with the best sustainable energy solutions?”

In a quest to find answers, Cox used her time as president to visit 24 countries, 28 universities, speak at 18 professional society conferences or meetings and five Student and Young Professional leadership events, which she says, “Allowed me to connect with AAPG’s global membership and communicate the importance of geoscience in sustainable energy development.” 

Cox, who is passionate about inspiring the current generation says, “I connect myself to young professionals to keep my mind open and forward-looking.” She [has read] the book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant, which posits that it is not necessarily a person’s immediate family that has the most influence on their career, but their first role model or coach. She recalls a lecture when she was a student at Binghamton University by AAPG Visiting Geoscientist, Susan Landon. “I saw in her what I could achieve [and] I knew I would be a petroleum geologist.”

“When you tell a young person, ‘I see the greatness in you; I see the potential you have,’ it sets in their DNA. Many young people that I [encountered] last year have since contacted me and said, ‘I met you and you believed in me.’ Those words get me out of bed every day because if I can keep motivating this next generation, they will break out and come up with the solutions we need to make the world a better place.”

Outgoing AAPG president Gretchen Gillis at the 2018 Aramco Bedouin Festival.
Outgoing AAPG president Gretchen Gillis at the 2018 Aramco Bedouin Festival.

Later in her own career, there would be three women who left a lasting impression on her. Rice University professor Martha Lou Broussard, the first woman to receive a degree from that school’s Earth, Environmental, and Planetary Sciences department, was her first example of a woman who faced conscious and unconscious bias as a leader. “She was the Vice President of the AAPG Executive Committee and I was terrified of her,” Cox says laughing, “because she had accomplished so much and was breaking barriers.”

Pinar Yilmaz, geoscience advisor at ExxonMobil, was “instrumental” in helping Cox develop a global network as a committee chair. Later, when Cox became president-elect, Yilmaz was an executive resource with her understanding of global business and cultural protocols.

Cox recalls then-AAPG President Robbie Gries acknowledging her success in updating a longstanding committee to one having global representation including race, gender, and age diversity.

The year she stood for president-elect was the same year she helped Gries edit her book Anomalies and she “grew to know and respect the women in geoscience who opened doors and paved the way for [women’s] leadership today.” While she was AAPG’s third female president, in celebrating 100 women in geoscience, Cox says she feels like she was the 103rd. “They’re supporting me. It is a karma debt. It’s a commitment for me now to motivate more women to stand for leadership.”

Whatever the outcome of the election, with two female candidates for president-elect, AAPG will have its fourth female president in 2021 – 104 years after its founding – and its104th woman of influence in geoscience, as Cox would say.

Excerpted by permission from the author. This article originally appeared on on May 20, 2020, and has been lightly edited. Editor’s note: Gretchen Gillis has just concluded her term as  president of AAPG 2021-2022. For more information, go to

Headline photo: Denise Cox, then AAPG president-elect 2017, at the Rock Star exhibit, exuberantly celebrates 100 of her female predecessors in the geosciences.

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Rebecca Ponton has been a journalist for 25+ years and is also a petroleum landman. Her book, Breaking the GAS Ceiling: Women in the Offshore Oil and Gas Industry (Modern History Press), was released in May 2019. For more info, go to

Photo courtesy of Marc Morrison Photography. Rebecca Ponton on the set of Accidental Texan. T-shirt courtesy of Dovetail Workwear.

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