Women Still Face Barriers For Oilfield Jobs

May 2, 2014

Melodie with Rig Elevators.
Melodie with Rig Elevators.
Credit Melodie Edwards

Some of the best paying jobs in Wyoming are in the oil and gas industry, but only ten percent are held by women.  Energy companies are trying to attract more women to fill open positions.  But women who do want to enter the field for the higher-paying jobs face a lot of barriers. Wyoming Public Radio’s Melodie Edwards reports.

EDWARDS: On a training rig on the outskirts of Casper, a group of young men in hardhats gathers around the rig elevators high up on the rig floor.  The instructor, Cliff Sherwood, is showing them how to swing two massive pieces of metal and pull them back to latch together around the rig’s pipe. 

SHERWOOD: Anybody want to try this one? Huh?  All right.

EDWARDS: A student steps forward and gives it a try.  Sherwood corrects him, stressing that proper technique is important.

SHERWOOD: No, no, no, no, no.  In other words, you’re a little far this way.  You may have to step a little to one side to latch it.    

EDWARDS: Rig workers have to be able to lift very heavy weights for long hours and often in bad weather.  And Sherwood says because of these physical demands a lot of his male students don’t stick it out.  As for women…

SHERWOOD: They’ve never made it through the door.

EDWARDS: There’s not a single woman in Sherwood’s class, and very few women in the energy industry at all.  Part of the reason is that so many of the jobs are very physically demanding.  But it’s also the schedule that’s the problem.  Rig workers are often out in the field far away from home for weeks on end, which is tough if you have children. Teka Perry is a single mom.  She’s taking a six week training course to become a welder and wants to get a job with the energy industry.  She’s got her childcare covered for the six weeks…

PERRY:  It’s actually a home daycare.  Just a family friend of ours.  She said she’d watch him for the six weeks that I do the class.

EDWARDS: But she’s not sure her friend will be able to continue the childcare once Perry gets a fulltime job.  She knows she’s going to be working long hours and sometimes won’t get home until late at night.  And few, if any, energy companies offer childcare, especially outside the regular nine to five work day.  And as if a lack of childcare isn’t enough, there’s the problem of discrimination.  Kelly Combs has been a pump truck operator for Halliburton for two-and-a-half years.  She says she’s experienced sexist comments on the job.  And she feels like she has to work harder to get the same recognition her male co-workers receive.

COMBS: Every day, still.  When there’s new people out here--whether it be the people we work for or my coworkers—me being a female and they’re looking at me and judging me a lot more than their male counterparts.

EDWARDS: Even so, Combs says she enjoys her job, especially working in the outdoors and collaborating on a team.  And because her schedule gives her long breaks, she can travel all over the world.

COMBS: I’ve been to Spain, and I’ve been to Bucharest, Romania.  Last year, I went to Moscow.  And next year, I’ll go to Tanzania.

EDWARDS: Combs is single so the around-the-clock shifts don’t compete with a family life.  Her company, Halliburton, is trying to attract more women like her. They currently have a 19% female workforce.  Lisa Finch is their Diversity and Inclusion Officer.

FINCH: I think anytime you bring into the candidate pool an additional skillset or options, that’s always a benefit.  And considering that women are, you know, half the population, that is a benefit to us. 

EDWARDS: Combs says another benefit is that women can help make the work place safer, which is critical since Wyoming has a bad track record for workplace injuries and deaths.  She says she’s become a role model for her co-workers.

COMBS: I don’t work as fast as the other guys, but I can get the job done.  They actually follow my lead now because it’s safer.

EDWARDS: But for many women, the obstacles are just too daunting. Representative Cathy Connoly wrote a report on Wyoming’s gender wage gap, which is the worst of any state in the country.  She says one of the big things keeping women away from the energy industry is the transient workforce, and the reputation the industry has for violence, and drugs and alcohol.

CONNOLY: And the reality of man camps is—it’s a reality.  You’ve got a pocket full of cash, you’re out of work for five to eight days.  You hang out with your buddies.  That’s not the best environment for thinking about community stability.  It just isn’t. 

EDWARDS: Not the right environment for community stability and therefore not an attractive workplace for many women.  Connoly says if companies want to hire more women they have to change the work culture. For example, offering schedules that allow for a home life and childcare outside the regular nine to five hours.  Connoly says if that doesn’t happen, the energy industry will likely continue to be mostly male dominated, offering women much fewer options for high paying jobs in the state.