Jan 5, 2013 / 3:58 pm
Well-paid jobs are luring more women to the rigs and vessels that draw oil from the ocean floor more than 300 kilometres east of St. John's, N.L., but life offshore is still very much a man's world.
At any given time there are more than 700 workers toiling in all kinds of weather at the major Hibernia, Terra Nova and SeaRose sites. Only about five per cent of them are women, and even fewer hold jobs outside of housekeeping or the kitchens, says the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
And while government and industry efforts to boost those numbers have seen more women enter training that could lead them offshore, there are persistent barriers. They include the stark reality that many women with young children can't see themselves working a schedule of three weeks on, three weeks off that takes them away from home for six months of the year.
And then there's the prospect of being surrounded by men for every hitch at sea. Women are often expected to share rooms with men, sleeping on opposite shifts, and there are few female washrooms on vessels and platforms designed for a vastly male workforce.
"Generally I find there's definitely more good than bad," said one woman who has worked at several offshore installations and who spoke on condition she not be identified.
Housekeeping and catering jobs can pay more than $60,000 a year, and salaries increase for skilled trades.
"It's not partying. You're out there to work," she said. "You're working 12 hours a day.
"For the most part, they do try to look after you," she said of the men she lives alongside for half the year. "There are one or two who ogle, and we know who they are."
But she referred to her male co-workers as "a second family" who will apologize for salty language or off-colour stories if they suddenly notice her presence in the break room.
"I'm after hearing it all," she said with a smile.
"I think they should be looking for more women," she said of the offshore industry. "I do see more now than I did when I started.
"It's nice to see more women coming out."
Paul Barnes, manager of Atlantic Canada for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says the umbrella group has offered funding and other support for education geared to getting more female workers offshore, especially in technology and trades.
But he said many women still write off the oil and gas sector as a dirty industry that won't last far into the future if oil reserves wane as predicted.
"Yes, there are certainly harsh environments that one would work in but it's certainly not a dirty environment as it might have been several years ago. It's an environment that's safe to work in and offers a lot of opportunity."
Union leaders representing offshore workers have made the case for shorter work rotations such as those in Norway, where the norm is two weeks at sea and four weeks off. In the British sector of the North Sea, it's often a rotation of two weeks on and three off.
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