This article previously appeared on the lovely Shelleyrae's blog Book'd Out.
Never go drinking with women who work on oil rigs. Just don’t do it. I tried one night and can still remember how epically I failed.
It all started when an Aussie engineer friend flew into town with a French colleague who worked in Algeria…
I was the one who made the suggestion to have a girls’ night out. It occurred to me how infrequently these ladies let their hair down and I got to scheming. Foolishly I thought that they wouldn’t want too big a night. After all, my Aussie friend had just come off of a six week shift on a rig in the Bass Strait and hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol that entire time. The lass from Algeria had lived on the fringes of the Sahara for months and should have had ‘Cadburys’ written all over her.
What I’d failed to factor in was the fact that these two ladies had forged successful careers in one of the blokiest industries in the world. Not only had they made it, they’d learned to do everything their male colleagues did better to avoid accusations of not pulling their weight. Drinking it turned out, was one of the things they’d gotten very good at.
I held up quite well in the beginning. Our first stop was a restaurant in Subiaco where the French lass picked the wine, offhandedly saying that her family owned a winery in the Loire Valley and that she wanted to check out the Australian competition. When I asked her how she’d ended up working in the oil industry—in Algeria no less—all I got was a Gallic shrug. Curiosity piqued now, I turned to my Aussie friend and asked the same question. Her answer was an equally prosaic ‘I heard it paid well.’
Conversation drifted to talking about favorite holiday destinations. I didn't manage to steer it back to asking the ladies more detailed questions about their work until the second bottle of wine did the rounds. This time they weren't so reticent.
It turned out that the Bass Strait rig my Aussie friend had worked on had been largely crewed by Texans and it had been a tough shift. Until then, she’d predominantly worked on rigs in Australia and Algeria where her colleagues were either governed by corporate regulation or cultural customs to be relatively well behaved. I listened as both women explained that normally, when a woman arrives on a rig anything that could be deemed offensive is removed from sight and their male colleagues are usually on their best behavior and are often good company.
This time had been different. As my Aussie friend detailed a vast number of grievances that would make the average sexual harassment lawyer do a happy dance all the way to the bank, the French lass just kept up with the shrugging. I asked her if she’d encountered similar treatment and the reply was, ‘sometimes.’ I then asked them why they didn't complain and got a look that said I was plainly mad. In the end my Australian friend took sympathy on my in my obvious confusion and explained that a sexual harassment complaint would kill their credibility and their careers dead in the water. And besides, she continued, that was just the one rig. The problem wasn't so much harassment. The issue was more the way the men she worked with used her as an agony aunt.
This got a resounding ‘oui’ from the French woman and a call for another bottle of wine.
While I tried to work out how my glass had magically topped itself up for the seventh time, both women shared stories of how their male colleagues had wanted to have deep and meaningful conversations at the most inopportune times. My Aussie friend mentioned a time where she’d been handling a radioactive source with full safety gear on and one of the roughnecks had wanted to bring up the problems he was having with his recent divorce!
The French lass laughed, saying one of her senior colleagues wouldn’t turn up to work on the rig unless she went and woke him up, like his mother did every morning. ‘Oh, and the gossip!’ She added.
Imagine my amusement when I found out that oil rigs are a hotbed of rumor and intrigue, everyone wanting to talk about everyone else’s business.
‘Worse than women!’ Was my Aussie friend’s reply.
‘Non. Better!’ The Frenchwoman disagreed, deliberately misunderstanding with a wide smile. ‘They gossip much better. They always have more information, more details than woman would.’
The conversation continued with many other anecdotes, a couple of rants, another bottle of wine and then silence as we contemplated a group of attractive men wandering by. Suddenly my Aussie friend gave a huge sigh. ‘You know the tough thing?’
‘It’s how they all look so good when you’re offshore. The first week? Not so much. The second, yeah, alright. Then by the third week at sea, every one of them is looking like a model.’
I started belly laughing but the Frenchwoman was shaking her head sadly. ‘I get this too. And then I have trouble knowing how to talk to them when I go home…’
‘Yeah, it’s really hard. It’s like they’re one way at work. And then here, it’s like they’re another.’ The Australian held up her hand to ask for the cocktail menu.
It wasn't until we were headed home in a taxi much, much later that I got around to asking them both if they actually liked their jobs. I got a resounding ‘Of course!’ When I asked why, the answers were emphatic. ‘The adventure, the travel, the challenge, the money…’ The list went on.
By the time I shuffled myself off to bed, all I could think of was that these ladies had lived. The next morning all I could think of was that I never wanted to live quite that hard with a bottle of wine again!