ICYMI: Guardian Article: "I work on a rig..."

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.

The lads on the land rig built a sleigh for Christmas... 

The lads on the land rig built a sleigh for Christmas... 

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.

Safety: Seriously Super or Silliness?

Anyone who works in an industrial setting is familiar with the concept of Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S, HSE, or one of the multitude of variations on the name).

Working in the field, the battle around OH&S and its acceptance is relentless.  Every company has their version of a set of 'Golden Rules', a specific training course designed to get you up to date and a regime of hazard observation and constant reporting that is allegedly designed to make workplaces safer.

Does it? Well, perhaps the proof is in the pudding...

Incidents are certainly occurring at a lower rate than they were 20 or 30 years ago.  However, there is something to be said for trying to avoid a safety culture that is about stifling productivity.

So where is the line between taking care of people and stifling their ability to work and think?

The answer isn't clear; obviously, since thousands of corporate man-hours have gone into thinking about this.  It does not help that we live in such a litigious society, meaning a portion of the motivation is what I like to call "booty insurance(or better known in the industry as CYA - Cover Your A***).  In the absence of academic knowledge in the area, I have decided to go with my personal-anthropological-observational-learnings and extrapolate wildly from there.

In a couple of interesting conversations recently, starkly different attitudes towards safety have come to light in sharp relief.  Here are a couple of the different characters people (by and large) fall into.

The old bloke who does NOT think any of the safety initiatives make an ounce of a difference.

"Back in my day..."

The standard call of the old-timer is that back in his day things were different and people were fine.

Except they weren't always fine, and when you dig a little deeper they usually admit a lot of people were hurt ("oh yeh, he put his back out, oh yeh, well he only has three fingers now").

They do have a fair point in saying that excessive reporting  does not necessarily mean people are thinking more about the task at hand.

These (mostly) men usually have their hearts in the right place and seemingly the largest frustration is not at the interest in safety, but the tools used to implement them.  Extra paperwork, repetitious reporting and superfluous systems often cause rejection of the concept outright rather than a tenacious engagement the rest of us green hands could use.

The young one who has just accepted it is a numbers game.

A fair few of young lads and ladies coming into the system fit into this category.  We understand it is a requirement - we haven't known the system to be any different really - and follow only because we must.

Write one hazard per person per day? Done.

Think about one hazard per person per day? Hmm, not so much.

True engagement in the system isn't guaranteed, and this is the weakness in the system.  How do you force people to think?  The frameworks in place are supposed to do this, yet...

The safety lad / lady who has never worked on the rig/in the workshop/on the track.

The archetype of the disliked safety official.

An individual who exists more in people's minds than in reality, this the type of individual who enjoys reporting on others without a conversation first, does not necessarily take on feedback from the field operators and generally is a blight on the safety cause.

Perhaps companies are more this character than individuals though.  People can be reasoned with, most of the time. Corporations and institutions are much more behemoth.

The safety person who has seen too many people get (or almost get) hurt and wants to do something about it.

...and this is the person who has the capacity to make the most difference.

Fortunately, the vast majority of the safety personnel on site that I have met are of this variety.  It is just unfortunate that they have to seemingly fight a battle with their institution to be able to communicate the culture and restrictions on site to the rule makers in the office.


The cowboy culture of doing things crazily and dangerously is not as prevalent as people think (or as I thought it would be), particularly in Australia.  So suffocation of field operators with rules and regulations can be self defeating if it is excessive and the monotony or ineffectiveness of the tool removes from the outcome.  For example, operating procedures that are 50 pages long when all that is needed is a simple step-by-step 'this is how you use this piece of equipment' in a way that mitigates the hazards.  By over-complicating the tool, people are dissuaded from using it.

Another example is the banning of products in a reactionary manner due to an involvement in a single incident.  There is a rumour that a mine site banned rags as they were involved in some sort of incident, only to reinstate them a few days later as they realised the workshop couldn't really operate without rags.

Ultimately, however, we all want to go home, and being safe in a workplace is imperative in allowing that to happen.  For that to happen, safety must be a part of the equation.  The trick is to getting the balance right.  Like everything else, that involves communication, respect and a healthy teaspoon of cement.

(I kid).

What do you think?