Yassmin Abdel-Magied at her first posting on the oil and gas rigs.
My first posting on the oil and gas rigs happened shortly after graduating from mechanical engineering. My mother was quite proud; my father on the other hand took a while to come around. He couldn't understand why his Muslim daughter wouldn't accept a solid, stable job offer in the city.
“What are you doing out here?” my friends would ask, “Is it just for the money?”, “What is it like working with blokes all the time?” or, more often than not: “Are you insane?”
I remember walking into a meeting in the early days as one of the guys was taking a sip of his instant coffee. "Tastes like date rape", he said.
I froze, looking at my fellow rig worker. I wasn’t quite sure what to say. If I overreacted he would badge me as being ‘over sensitive’ and avoid me for the rest of the job, but my inner feminist nonetheless cringed at the idea of letting such language slide. Sensing my unease, he finally said, "I guess we can’t say that sort of thing anymore now that you are here."
Working on oil and gas rigs isn't the first career path that typically comes to mind for many women. By and large, it's seen as a rough, tough, blokey world that is does not welcome female employees. Notwithstanding this, I was attracted to the adventure, the practical aspect of the operation and the challenge of working in such an unusual environment. It seemed like the ideal first job for an engineering experience junkie like me.
Given the fact that I have met around six women working in the field in the entire time I have been employed, one can say there is truth in the 'boys club' perception. But working in this masculine, testosterone-drenched environment has also been an interesting exercise in backyard sociology.
Here are some of the things I’ve learnt in the time I spent at the oil rigs:
Firstly, there is a significant generational difference in the male workers' attitudes towards women.
An older colleague once said, "Girly, when I started drinking, women weren't even allowed in bars." Men of his age share an antiquated view of women, but they are products of their time.
Then there are those who feel the need to be protective. “My mother, my father, my grandparents, my aunties...they'd not just roll in their graves, they'd right come out of their graves to give me a de-nozo slap if they heard me using any sort of language in front of a lady!”
Young guys, on the other hand, are often more 'gender blind'. Women being denied access or opportunities simply due to their gender is seen as old-fashioned. They are also keenly aware of the legislation that protects that equality and will err on the side of caution so as not to put their foot in it.
They tend to test the waters and gauge what they can and can’t say around their female colleagues before they are rebuked. It does give us a modicum of power, as they follow our cue.
However, 'formal' equality does not necessarily reflect a true change in their social attitudes and underlying expectations. And the biggest giveaway is in the way the workers speak.
The language used by men on the rig is indescribable - and that is what they choose to say in front of me. It’s relatively easy to complain about offensive or derogatory language in a modern mix-gender workplace. However, when operating as the sole female in a male dominated environment, there are some awkward challenges.
Yes, we can go in, guns blazing, demanding things happen on our terms. The legislative framework exists, and is there for anyone to use if they feel discriminated against in any manner.
The protection we have as women in these environments is unprecedented when compared to attitudes two short years ago. Legal change is the first, extremely important step. However, forcing change in that manner inevitably fosters dissent and confusion in some cases.
In other words, the rules are changing for these men, but they don't quite know how to deal with it yet. It is this behavioural change that we must now strive and push for, and it will be an uphill struggle.
In the end these are people I work with, live with, laugh with and rely on to keep me alive around pretty heavy machinery. Most of them have fallen over themselves to help me and make sure that I am protected and looked after. Although they can be painted as uneducated chauvinists, many of them are also a product of their society and what is expected of them to be ‘men’.
As my rig manager said, “This is a completely different world to [the one] out there... There is no way I would speak the same way I do on the rig in the street, that wouldn't be right. It's just a way of keeping yourself a little sane'.”
Yassmin Abdel-Magied is the founder and president of Youth Without Borders. Follow Yassmin on Twitter @yassmin_a