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Memoir

On the rigs

'YOU'RE WORKING ON the rigs?' one of the drillers from my camp asked, his voice heavy with surprise. 'We assumed you were just with the camp. Respect hey, that's awesome, we love having chicks actually on the rigs.'

Another chimed in. 'Yeah, that's great. What do you do?'

'I'm a service hand, a "measurement while drilling" specialist. You really think we're really welcome here?' I asked.

'Yeah! We need more of it.'

Later that day, I had another conversation that challenged this view. Clearly women in the oil and gas industry are not universally welcomed. My rig manager was quite clear about his views, 'I said nope, no, absolutely not. There was no way I was going to let a female be on my crew. Everyone agreed. Sean (the manager on the other shift) even said that if she was hired, he would quit.'

The rig manager shrugged as he explained the reaction to a 'lady' applying to be a leasehand on the rig – the lowest level job, responsible for cleaning and errands.

'I just didn't want to deal with the extra hassle that it would bring,' he said.

I am the only woman on the twenty-five person rig in Central Western Queensland.

Later that evening as I begin my regular twelve-hour night shift, I touch my iPod screen and select my current favourite anthem. In a flash Seal's velvet voice reverberates through the white earbuds. 'This is a man's, man's world…'

ACCEPTING THAT YOUR 21-year-old Muslim daughter is going to work on remote oil and gas rigs is not easy. I am fortunate to have parents who understand (although perhaps not always share) my interest in adventure and not being ordinary. Their view is simple: as long as the rules of Islam are followed and there is a coherent and beneficial reason for me doing the things I choose, they will support me.

My parents say they weren't sure what to expect when they immigrated to Australia almost twenty years ago, fleeing the oppressive political regime in Sudan. They may not have had a concrete idea of where it would lead, but I certainly inherited from them a willingness to seize opportunity and embark on adventures. That may explain how they found themselves with a daughter who boxes, designs racing cars, and while visiting family in Sudan last year, got wrapped up in an attempt to overthrow the same oppressive government that forced them to leave.

They came to Australia looking for a new beginning, now they are parents of a female, Muslim rig hand.

As part of my faith, I wear the hijab (headscarf), and have been doing so since I was ten, as a personal choice. It is truly something that has become a part of my identity, and I like to be flamboyant and creative with colours and styles. My head covering on the rig is a little less obvious and obtrusive, it is convenient to combine with the hardhat and a little cooler. In true Australian fashion, however, religion is one topic that is fastidiously avoided, and people don't always realise the significance of my head covering. It makes for some interesting conversations.

'So when's that tea cosy come off?'

I turned around to my colleague and chuckled to myself.

'Nah, it doesn't come off, I was born with it, eh!'

His jaw dropped slightly and he looked at me in confusion. 'Wha-a-?'

I laughed out loud. 'Nah mate! It's a religious thing. We call it a hijab, I guess this is the abbreviated hard-hat friendly version...'

'Oh yeah righto…'

He nodded, uncertain, then shrugged and went back to his meal.

When I told my family at home, my father couldn't get enough of it.

'Let's call you Tea Cosy now!'

THE OIL AND gas industry in and around Australia has existed for decades. The onshore coal seam gas industry has, however, only recently begun to boom and become a subject of vocal controversy. Companies like Santos, Arrow Energy, Queensland Gas Company and Origin are battling it out throughout the Bowen and Surat Basins, drilling as fast as they can to have enough gas to fulfil the contracts they have signed. The numbers advertised by the companies are incredible, going from just ten wells in the early 1990s to more than 600 in 2010–2011. They predict this will increase to a whopping 40,000 wells by the middle of this century.

This means that there are many job opportunities in the gas industry for new engineers, like me. Many opt for graduate positions in one of the large client companies that produce the liquefied natural gas from the coal seam gas that has been extracted. There they work on the design, procurement or project management aspects of drilling and production.

Others want to get their hands dirty, to see what is happening in the field, and they take another route. This suited my sense of adventure and I opted for field experience. As a field engineer, I live, eat and work on remote oil and gas drilling rigs throughout the country and the world.

It is unusual and full of challenging learning experiences. It is also an extremely humbling opportunity to be part of a world that is unknown to many. What has been most surprising about the experience, however, is not the physical aspect or the male-dominated environment – studying engineering will accustom any woman to this, only five women graduated in my year in a class of 200 – but the constant reminder of gender. What I considered an innocuous detail looms as the most important for many others.

DRILLING RIGS DRILL holes – wells – in the ground in order to reach a 'payzone'; usually either oil or gas. Onshore and offshore drilling rigs look similar, despite the obvious difference in location. Australia has both onshore and offshore operations, but the onshore rigs are typically smaller. I work mostly on these onshore outfits, often in remote locations anywhere from thirty minutes drive to a few hours flight away from the nearest town. They operate twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. I spent Islamic Eid celebrations, Christmas and New Year at work. This is common, the drilling and pumping never stops.

In a typical operation, a rig will be set up on a cleared piece of land – a pad – and the operating crew will live in a camp up to (and sometimes over) twenty minutes drive away.

The rig is basically made up of a rig floor (where the main rig operations occur, usually at least four metres above the wellbore ground level), the derrick (the tall mast that holds the pipe as well as the drive system, and ranges from ten to thirty metres high), the dog-house (a small room on the rig floor for the driller) and varied tank system on the ground nearby, housing the fluid (usually mud) which is pumped down the drill string (as it is called when the drill pipe is joined together). The 'catwalk' attached to the rig raises the pipe to the rig floor while drilling. There are also various water tanks, other equipment (generators, pumps) and shacks for the personnel. All up, this can all be housed on a piece of land that is less than a hundred metres square.

The quality of the camp depends on the company; generally there are between five and twenty 'dongas' (converted shipping containers) with three to five rooms each. Each room houses two people, on opposite shifts; one person sleeps the other works, and depending on the camp, there are either camp-wide communal bathrooms, shared bathrooms or individual ensuites.

It is not luxurious, but crew are compensated for the lifestyle. Most rig workers, like mining workers, work a rotational fly-in, fly-out shift – two weeks on, two weeks off. The contractors who provide supplementary services to the rig tend to have on-call arrangements with no formal rotation: you work when you are needed. I have been fortunate and have not had to work extremely long 'hitches' yet. To my parent's relief, my longest attachment was twenty days in central Queensland. The longest hitch I've heard about is eighty-four days straight, with not a single day off. Such is the life of a service hand.

THE ENVIRONMENT IS unapologetically male. It is also isolated and basic: all everyone does is sleep-eat-work. I found it relatively easy to acclimatise given my studies and interests, but I underestimated the impact that being the only woman for most of my time, in a group of between twenty and sixty men, would have on me. I found it more challenging than I expected to navigate work/life nuances on the rigs.

There are not many other places in the world where a woman is made more aware of her gender: where you must learn to find the balance as a woman in such an overwhelmingly male world. Many, most, of the men who work in oil and gas still consider the industry to be a 'man's domain', and even those who welcome women have particular expectations of how a woman should act to be fully accepted.

'This is a man's world,' I was told once by an older male colleague, 'so as a woman you have to learn the rules and fit in. You can't change the men.'

Most surprisingly for a Muslim woman focused on academic and formal equality, 'learning to fit in' has included navigating the sexual double standard that is ever present in the field.

I became weary of being seen as a woman who would come in to 'change the ways of the men'. Such a reputation would make life very difficult for me. So when I was on a rig I would make a point of joking with the crew and let their comments roll. It was a way of showing that 'I could take it.' I had four years of mechanical engineering under my belt after all, where females made up less than 5 per cent of the class, so I thought it was something I was used to. I soon discovered that I was not.

Things were turned on their head, and I had to rethink the best way of coping, one afternoon when a rig worker made an announcement over the two-way radio.

'Yassmin, I'll give you $100 to wrestle in the mud with Bazza!' the voice cackled over the speaker.

I scoffed to myself, who did he think he was?

'You wish – I wouldn't even dream about it for less than half a million,' I shot back, secretly proud at myself for fobbing him off in what I thought was quite an effective manner.

'Half a million! Do you know what I could get with half a million?' the voice came back, incredulous.

Not me rolling around in the mud on a rig for you, I thought.

Later that night, an older colleague took me aside.

'You gotta put a stop to that kind of talk you know,' he said. I looked at him, puzzled.

'It diminishes you. People will start thinking you're a slut.'

I was shocked – how did they interpret my comment like that? The double standard of sexual promiscuity for men and women took me by surprise. How could I, as a young, practicing Muslim woman on a rig, standing up for myself, possibly be considered as promiscuous?

The same banter that makes 'men, men' on the rig, is not open to women. Too much backchat and your value is 'diminished', too little, and you're perceived as uptight and hard to work with. A fine line and not one that I never expected to walk, but not the only one in the bush.

Drilling rigs are places where large groups of men are isolated for at least two weeks at a time and left to their own devices. Many of these men are not well educated – I know several illiterate drillers – and so it becomes an environment where base instincts take hold. Humiliating hazing, that should be illegal, like tying people up and urinating on them, is, according to stories I have heard from other rigs, surprisingly commonplace. In this environment women are seen as fair game. Adolescent-like practical jokes are common and almost everyone talks about viewing of pornography openly. On my second job in the field, a colleague offered me free access to his one-and-a-half-terabyte pornography collection. 'Take what you want!' he said. 'I've got stuff from almost any country, and there is exotic stuff in that folder,' he indicated. 'I collect it!'

I politely, but firmly declined.

I had thought pornography was something people grew out of in high school. Not so, I was assured by a motorman on my first job.

'If the dongas aren't perfectly level, you might feel the room rocking when you're trying to get to sleep. That usually means someone in one of the rooms is having a…' I interrupted at that point; not wanting to hear the details. The image stayed in my mind, though, and I involuntarily cringe every time my donga moves now, even though usually it's someone walking up the stairs.

IT IS NOT all rough, and the industry has changed significantly, even in the past few years. Despite the traditional male dominance, there are strong factors forcing welcome change. Two catalysts for change are the increasingly strict Occupational Health and Safety regulations and the presence of women on rigs.

While there are relatively few women in the physically demanding rig environment, there are increasing numbers of women working as geologists, engineers, and in wireline and drilling and measurement services.

The transition has not been easy and as my experiences show, reactions vary from acceptance and encouragement, to fear of the change the presence of women might bring. 'It makes it feel more like the real world,' several rig hands have told me. 'When there is a woman around, people argue less, talk about different things and it doesn't feel like such a strange place to come to.'

This perspective was slightly surprising and equally encouraging. The more common opinion however, is shaped by fear. Although some men enjoy having women as part of their workforce, they still believe it is their domain and women are 'more trouble than they are worth'. I have heard this many times. In part this stems from the fear of sexual harassment claims, which are not uncommon in the industry in both the field and office environment. Numbers are difficult to come by, but anecdotally, it seems that two thirds of the rigs in Queensland have had some sort of sexual harassment complaint from a woman in the recent past.

I have found it takes an average of three shifts (tours – three consecutive twelve-hour days or nights), before the crew begin to interact, even after making an extensive effort to get to know the individuals. By the third tour, crews may start having conversations in my presence. It usually takes a week or two on the same job before I can walk into a room and the conversation doesn't completely stop. It is rarely an aggressively threatening environment, although it can be extremely intimidating. It is more that the crew don't know how to behave with a woman in their midst. Do they act normally? Should they be on their best behaviour? They wait for cues.

'We gotta suss the chicks out,' an assistant driller commented. 'You don't know if she's going to just report you on a joke you didn't even realise you made. I don't want to lose my job, so I just stay quiet.'

This view is not uncommon; a lot of people have said the same thing in different ways. On one hand, it is heartening to see the system working, to see that women's rights in the field are taken seriously. On the other, it instantly causes an 'us and them' rift. The men band together; their view is that 'the women are the same and out to get them' or that they are 'too sensitive' and won't be privy to the men's banter. Unfortunately, on most sites there are not enough women to form their own gangs.

The men are right to be uncertain about how their banter will be received. It is usually extremely racist, sexist and offensive. It can't be just excused as 'rig talk'.

Charlie is a 68-year-old directional driller. He grinned at me when he decided he could talk to me and said with a smirk, 'Oh yes, I have some blacks in my family tree!' I was naively impressed (and surprised) that we may have some shared heritage, as Charlie looked like an average 'Aussie battler'.

'Oh yes, yes I do. I think they're still hanging there out the front of the house!'

His wizened face creased into a smile as he began to chortle. I began to laugh as well, mostly in shock. 'Charlie, you're a terrible man!' I replied, shaking my head.

'I know! It's great isn't it!'

I FIND I am constantly asking myself the question: Does one adopt and accept the mannerisms of the rig to 'fit in', and become 'one of the boys', not causing waves by accepting the status quo? Or should I, and other women, stick to our guns and demand change, that the men working in these isolated and testing environments change their culture and mannerisms in order to incorporate women?

It is not easy to answer. My mother sat me down before I left for my first 'hitch' and gave me some advice. 'Don't forget Yassmina, that you are not a boy, and you will never be 'one of the boys'. At the end of the day, you are and will always be a woman, and a Muslim woman at that, so you must act like one and guard yourself.'

At the time, the advice jarred. I had always been 'one of the boys'. It was difficult to understand why this had to change now.

The more I work in the field though, the more I realise that things are different. Being 'one of the boys' may have been appropriate at university. In the field no matter what I do, my gender will never be forgotten. This was one of the reasons the rig manager refused to have women on his crews. 'The guy that was pushing for this woman to be hired, he had hired his twin sister way back in the day on the rigs so had a soft spot for women on crews. He ended up having to fire her though, because she hooked up with another crew-member. What does that tell you?'

We are faced not only with entrenched attitudes within the industry of what women are capable of, but also individual prejudices. In an industry where it seems every second man is going through or recovering from a divorce (partly due to the lifestyle), the cocktail of emotion and misunderstanding can be toxic. If I had a dollar for the number of times a co-worker has said, part mirth and part seriousness – 'All you damn ****women are the same' – I could probably retire.

Even as I write this, I feel I should apologise and add a disclaimer. Not all the oil and gas fields are like this.

Or is this just me, explaining away behaviour that is common on rigs so I don't 'rock the boat' or disturb the peace and become an unwanted entity? I haven't been able to answer these questions yet. Working on the rigs has, however, allowed and forced me to reinterpret my understanding of what it means to be a strong woman.

I was always one for doing things differently, partly because I could, and partly because I just did what I wanted. Being the first girl at a Christian ecumenical school, and the largest in Queensland, to wear the hijab when I started there in 2002, was pretty exciting. Being the first woman in my company's department in Australia was even better. I broke the bench press record for girls at school, topped the two male-dominated classes of graphics and technology studies (woodwork) and I prided myself on being able to 'hold my own among the men', physically and in banter. Although I was proud to be a woman, I had always been even more proud of my 'masculine' qualities. Perhaps this is what frustrated my mother the most.

In the rigging world though, there is no mistaking the fact that I am a woman. I am not as strong as all the guys, though I can hold my own. I am not as foul mouthed, but I can come back with a quip to keep them quiet (or laughing, depending on the situation).

'Gosh, you've got it pretty good don't you? You get your clothes washed, your bed made, your food cooked for you and on top of that, your choice of twenty-five men! With no competition!' John, the campie, chortled as he opened the crib room door.

'What more could a woman want, eh?'

His lined, weather-beaten face flashed a grin, showing off his multiple silver fillings as he left the shack. I shook my head slowly and laughed. What more indeed…

This job has made me realise that it is actually okay to be a woman, and being 'strong' doesn't necessarily mean being 'masculine'. It's ironic that it has taken a world renowned for its toughness, to make me appreciate my femininity.

THERE IS NO doubt that it is a man's world, but it is changing. Australia is lagging behind other countries – in Norway and Europe women are much more routinely employed on rigs. How women change the field or change ourselves to fit in remains an unanswered question, but it will be exciting.

On another rig, I need to find the amenities. 'Are the loos working?' I ask the leasehand in charge of keeping the rig clean.

'Nah, they're probably filthy. I haven't been in there in ages, I just piss in the paddock!'

I laughed as I walked towards the amenities shack.

'Hover!' he yells faintly.

Hover I did. As I pushed down the pedal of the portaloo and the stench wafts up, I shake my head and wonder: why did I choose this job?

But I do remember. I chose this job because I love a challenge, I love working in the field and I thrive on being forced out of my comfort zone and into environments where I have to prove myself. If I manage to smash a few stereotypes along the way, so much the better.

Names of rig workers have been changed to protect identity.


From Griffith Review Edition 40: WOMEN & POWER © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review