In case you missed it, here is an article I wrote recently on the Guardian. Yeh, the title is a little click-baity, but have a read anyway...
I work on an oil rig with 150 men. You wouldn't believe the stories.
Being a female in a male-dominated workforce makes for being a subject of endless fascination.
The most common question immediately after the big reveal is an awed, “Oh, but what is it actually like working with all those blokes?”
Sometimes, it’s fun just sharing the war stories.
“Oh mate,” I’ll tell them.
“Working on the rig is like, another world. On land, I am usually the only chick out of 30 or so. Sometimes you would have one other girl on site, but almost never more than one. Offshore, it’s party time! You’re looking at maybe four women out of 150? It’s crazy. It’s awesome. You should hear some of the jokes.”
At this point, I might lean forward, and in whispered tones for effect, share what I call the “crazy rig conversations”.
“There was this one guy, right – he was just straight out about it,” I say. “He was like, ‘I’m a chauvinist, OK? I’m the last of a dying breed. Let me just say what I want to say!’
“I’ll tell ya, some of the rest is unrepeatable in good company! Get a bunch of blokes together and anything goes. I reckon I don’t even hear all the good stuff, although they do eventually get used to you.”
Truth be told, however, that is not the whole picture. In fact, like anything, working as a female in a male-dominated industry is all of the things – challenging, difficult, fun, rewarding, unexpected and above all, completely subjective.
What is fascinating is how the experience of women in industry reflects the broader expectations of and attitude towards women in our society. There is a general acceptance that gender diversity is a “good” thing, but some occasional reluctance about “forcing” a change, particularly when affirmative action is considered.
The broader questions around roles of men and women in society also linger. The traditional norm of men as the breadwinners and women as the homemakers in our society has definitely been challenged, but what does the alternative look like? Are women the homemakers and the breadwinners? Are men the homemakers? What does this say about our construction of masculinity and femininity? There are more questions than there are answers, and being in an industry with mostly men, it is fascinating to see the dynamics play out.
There are generational differences in the ideologies and this also varies based on industry, location (in the field or in the office) and education level (management versus engineers versus operators). Interestingly, it doesn’t play out like you would expect.
A recent conversation with a young engineer who started in the mining industry brought this to the fore.
“I’ve had a great time!” she said, almost in surprise. “I was expecting it to be rough and the men to be mean, but they’ve all taken care of me and shown me around.”
Indeed, quite often there can be advantages to being a woman in a male-dominated industry. People know who you are, you will always be remembered (which is a double edged sword) and the lads, particularly the operators, enjoy talking to a woman, particularly after being around only blokes for weeks on end. The older generations of men in the field (the baby boomers) are often happy to take on the role of “teacher” for a younger female, so a lot can be learnt. The younger men (gen Y) have grown up in a world where they have been told men and women are generally equal, and accept that as the status quo.
However, as we see in other industries, those benefits don’t necessarily trickle up, and there are still some structural and societal barriers that make it difficult for women. Scratching beneath the surface allows the unconscious bias to become evident. Taking the case of engineers, for example, it can be argued that female engineers are often highly visible as women, but invisible as engineers. There is an acceptance in equality but not always a true belief in it.
It may be the baby boomer is happy to teach but finds it difficult to accept direction from a younger female until she has proven her worth beyond all doubt. It may be the residual resentment in the young male engineers that a female engineer is more sought after by a company with a diversity policy. Those biases are more difficult to challenge and reflect the broader societal attitudes that are yet to change.
Some of the structural barriers are simply due to the nature of the industry which has been designed around men, due to its history. Whether that is because it’s seen as difficult to hold down a Fifo roster while pregnant or with young children, or that many time-consuming and demanding project management roles are given to engineers at a time when many women are having kids and may not necessarily have the support at home, some male-dominated workplaces are, unsurprisingly, still designed around men.
It is not all doom and gloom however. Times are changing, and are changing more rapidly than ever.
There are more and more examples of “non-traditional” families, where duties are shared and unusual support networks created. There are more women entering the science, technology, engineering and maths spaces, although there should be more. There are more companies with obvious diversity policies and that encourage women and cater to their needs. Things are looking up, it just takes time.
Overall, when it comes to women in male-dominated workplaces, the legislative change has been made. That battle has been won. The question is now about social change. We have to decide what we want our society to look like when we have true social acceptance of equality and access to opportunity, and then each and every one of us has to pitch in and create that reality.
In the meantime, I will continue to revel in sharing the war stories.