Tags: North Dakota | energy industry | women | safety | oil | gas | fracking

Not Just Hookers: Oil-Patch Women Say Area's Safe, Career-Driven

By    |   Wednesday, 27 May 2015 05:30 PM

Judging by its critics, the energy industry — and specifically the oil and gas industry in North Dakota — isn't female-friendly.

Yet women who live and work in the oil patch say the energy industry isn't just a safe place for women, but that there are plenty of opportunities for everybody.

In popular media, North Dakota's oil patch is often depicted as a rowdy place full of roughnecks and prostitutes.

A new weekly drama from ABC called "Oil!" which is supposedly set in North Dakota — though that's hard to tell with the snow-capped peaks of Utah, the actual setting, in the background of nearly every scene — looks to portray oil-patch communities as a sort of nouveau Wild West.

Stories about strippers striking it rich at oil-town topless bars and struggles with human trafficking dot national headlines.

Even some of North Dakota's political leaders have branded the state unsafe for women. In their 2013 party platform, North Dakota Democrats accused Republican majorities in the state of ignoring "the emergent danger women face by simply being women in this state."

Nationally, activists have declared hydraulic fracking a feminist issue.

"Fracking as an industry serves men; 95 percent of the people employed in the gas fields are men," ecologist and anti-fracking activist Sandra Steingraber said during a lecture at the University of Pittsburgh on April 6. "When we talk about jobs, we're talking about jobs for men, and we need to say that. And the jobs for women are hotel maids and prostitutes."

Are women unsafe in the energy industry? Are jobs as sex workers and hotel maids really all they can find? Watchdog interviewed a cross section of women working in and around the energy industry. They say women are safe, even in the oil fields, and you don't have to be a hooker to find opportunity.

Plenty of good jobs for women

"That's absolutely crazy talk," Kathleen Neset told Watchdog, referring to Steingraber's assertions. "I would like to inform her a little more clearly that there are very good jobs. Perhaps she needs to learn a little bit more about our industry."

Neset is the president of Neset Consulting Services, a company based in Tioga, North Dakota, which she founded with her husband in 1980. Neset has worked in the energy industry since the 1970s in such states as Michigan, Colorado, and Wyoming before coming to North Dakota.

She told Watchdog that opportunities abound for women in the oil industry. "I for one have been very involved in geology, horizontal drilling, and fracking. Our workforce here at Neset Consulting has averaged about 20 percent women working in technical jobs. These are scientists. These are engineers. These are professionals who by virtue of their education or by experience are doing incredible work."

Julie Fedorchak, one of North Dakota's three public service commissioners, agrees. "I see everyday examples of women who are engineers, who are out on fracking crews, who are geologists," she said.

"This industry provides opportunity for everybody. It is not gender-specific. Energy development across the board — whether it's traditional energy like fossil fuels or renewables — they're good jobs, they require high skill levels. I think it's really irresponsible for people like that to make those kind of baseless comments."

Rebecca Rigal was born in Germany and has a degree in equine science, but lost her job as a horse trainer in Utah during the economic recession of 2008 and 2009. She moved to North Dakota because a friend had a job for her driving trucks in the Bakken oil fields. Today, she has her own trucking business, the lighthearted-named Acronym Trucking, with two trucks.

"I can tell you that in northeast Montana and northwest North Dakota, there is the same opportunity for anybody," she told Watchdog. "I'm an owner-operator with two trucks. I came here about five years ago."

Are women safe in the oil and gas industry?

Lynn Welker is part of the management team at Panther Pressure Testers, working in business development and external communications. As a part of her duties she visits drilling sites frequently. Asked if she feels unsafe during those visits, her answer was a blunt "no."

"I used to work as a juvenile probation officer. I found myself in more unsafe environments in that career field than I have in the energy industry," she said, adding that professional behavior is important. "There are many safeguards in place. I find this industry to be quite safe and like any industry, how you conduct yourself is important."

Rigal agreed. "I've never felt unsafe myself," she said. "You have to be smart. You can't be dumb. The first six months I was up here I was more or less living in the truck at the little Tesoro truck stop in Williston. I never put myself in a position that was questionable for my safety."

"I get asked that question a lot by women applying for these technical positions. I say, absolutely yes," Neset responded when asked if women are safe in the oil fields. "I'm a perfect example. It's very safe. I can honestly say I've never questioned my safety out on a drilling rig."

But like Rigal and Welker, Neset said the key is to make good decisions.

"I think a woman has to set the tone," Neset said. "If the men are aware that a woman is there to be a professional, that is where the level stays. If she chooses to make poor choices as a woman, you've compromised your standards."

Rigal says part of that professionalism is learning how to take a joke. "The whole 5 1/2 years I've been up here, 95 percent of the time I was treated with respect," she said. "There are jokes. The jokes are rough, the men are rough. If you're an ultra-liberal feminist, you're just not going to make it. But safety has never really been a concern of mine at all."

A male-dominated industry

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up just 13.2 percent of the work force in the mining industry, a category that includes oil and gas extraction. That's a big gender disparity, but women in North Dakota's oil fields say it comes with the territory.

"A lot of men get work early on by virtue of the hard physical-labor part of this," Neset said. "Many of our company CEOs and individuals have worked up through those ranks. My two sons are perfect examples: They both went roughnecking. I don't see many women go out roughnecking. It's very difficult for women, given the nature of the work, to get those opportunities or even to want those opportunities."

Rigal said there are some jobs women may struggle to fill. "There's most certainly jobs that can't physically be done as easily for a woman as they are for a man when we're talking about roughnecks and pipefitters who have to put a lot of elbow grease in their daily jobs," she said.

But Welker says it's wrong to think of the energy industry as only providing jobs working directly in the industry. "There are any range of opportunities, from serving as a geologist to a petroleum engineer to a public relations advocate to land professional to an attorney," she said. "There are a wide spectrum of opportunities available."

She added that comments like Steingraber's don't help.

"I think sometimes the challenge is the mentality that comes from Ms. Steingraber," she said. "Women may not be aware of what opportunities might be available."

Fedorchak agreed. "I think it's really irresponsible for people like that to make those kind of baseless comments," she said.

Rigal said misconceptions about the energy industry are common. "People have the wrong idea. There have been a few people living in a tent, but that's by choice. If you really want to find something, it's doable," she said.

"If you want to be a florist and you want to play with flowers all day long, go play with flowers. If you want to sit in the truck and move water or oil or whatever, do that. If you have an engineering degree, do that."

Women, come on down

Neset said she doesn't feel comments from activists like Steingraber will deter many women from the energy industry.

"I tend to think that the women who do want technical, professional jobs don't get scared away that easily," she said. "I know that women who do make educational choices that lead them in the STEM direction with the math and science background tend to be very strong and independent-willed people."

"Absolutely. Go for it," Rigal said when asked if women should pursue a career in the oil patch. "Toughen up and go for it. You can't let anything get handed to you. You have to go for it. Maybe circumstances could be a little bit uncomfortable at times, but we're all grownups, aren't we?"

Welker said that not everyone who works in the energy industry planned it that way, but that a career in the industry can be rewarding, anyway.

"Sometimes it's not a direct path to get there, but you find some avenue that can lead you there," she said. "I have found my experience in the industry to be very rewarding. I have been able to meet the most outstanding professionals through this kind of work and it's also given me the opportunity to travel to more than a dozen states. I've found the whole experience to be extremely valuable."

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com and a reporter based in Minot, North Dakota. You can contact him at rport@watchdog.org, or follow him on Twitter @robport.

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Judging by its critics, the energy industry, specifically the oil and gas industry in North Dakota, isn't female-friendly. Yet women who live and work in the oil patch say the industry isn't just a safe place for women, but that there are plenty of opportunities for everybody.
North Dakota, energy industry, women, safety, oil, gas, fracking, Bakken
Wednesday, 27 May 2015 05:30 PM
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