Arguably one of the key challenges when researching the history of health and safety is in accessing women’s experiences of industry and employment. The papers of organisations like the Women’s Advisory Committees of trade unions can go some way toward bridging the gap, but archival documents that shed light on the average circumstances of female workers day-to-day are difficult to come by. If anything, this is even harder in the male-dominated heavy industries where women often made up a very small percentage of the workforce.
During a recent trip to the National Archives of Scotland I unearthed an interesting file which explored women’s experiences seeking employment in the North Sea oil industry in the mid-1980s. The document prompted me to think about the ways in which we historicise female employment and ‘traditional’ female roles in industry. It doesn’t directly relate to safety, but does discuss how ideas about working conditions and the physical demands of manual labour were used to justify discriminatory attitudes toward women, including managerial assumptions that women were less able to ‘handle’ heavy work.
The report ‘Women in the North Sea Oil Industry’ was produced for the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1984, based on statements given by 158 female respondents regarding their experiences finding work in the industry, and the discrimination they encountered while interviewing for jobs with offshore oil companies.
This discrimination took the form of an overwhelming bias on the part of employers regarding the ability of women to carry out the kinds of physically-intensive offshore jobs traditionally dominated by men. According to the report:
“Companies stated there was no chance of women working “in the field”. This seemed to be quite a common situation within geology companies. Lack of facilities and inability to endure the physical side of the work seemed to be the excuse.”
There was also evidence of more extreme sexist attitudes on the part of some interviewers. One of the respondents said:
“During interviews with mud logging companies and oil companies, female colleagues were asked questions specifically because of their sex. I.e. do you know how to change a car tyre/electrical plug? Also, they were shouted at, by the interviewer, to determine how they would react under pressure. Neither of these lines of interview were taken when the same interviewer addressed male interviewees.”
The lack of facilities available, sleeping quarters and amenities were also cited as issues, as was the fact that women would require a male chaperone for some aspects of the work. Generally, the perception on the part of some companies was that women wouldn’t be able to cope with the rough nature of the job, and that they would eventually leave to start families anyway (so training would be a waste of time):
“My interview consisted of questions about hobbies, future plans (I.e marriage, children), why I went to one specific university, affinity to family/home. Whilst I was asked such “Noddy” stuff the boys on my course were asked specific geological questions, examined slides/specimens to identify for the interviewer.”
Sometimes potential candidates were point-blank refused interviews on the basis of their gender, with one company stating that they just didn’t employ women. Some interviewees found that companies were more willing to hire less qualified men for offshore jobs:
“On being told I wouldn’t be physically strong enough (for offshore work) I challenged this and it was admitted that I was as strong as a male of my build (of which there were two interviewed the same day – both offered jobs and both with 2:ii degrees as compared to my 2:i).”
The 1975 Sex Discrimination Act protected against discrimination on the basis of gender, and in 1984 the amendment of the Equal Pay Act (1970) demanded that men and women be paid the same amount for jobs that were broadly similar. Respondents said that although this legislation seemed to influence oil companies to interview more women for offshore jobs, this was very much a ‘box ticking’ exercise:
“Both companies said the main reason for taking on women was because of the Equal Opportunities Act and it would be good for them to be seen to be doing so.”
Other respondents said that although they were called to interviews they felt they weren’t taken seriously by potential employers:
“He (the interviewer) tried to dissuade me from sustaining my application and was also rather patronising. The following interviewee, male, reported that the interviewer made several comments to him about me, amongst which was “Cor, I wouldn’t mind having her out on a rig”, in such a manner as to indicate lewd intentions.”
Many women who were offered jobs found themselves being pushed into laboratory work and non-geological roles – not the offshore jobs they had originally applied for. For others already working at oil companies opportunities for promotion were cited as being slim, with male employees more likely to be promoted over more qualified female counterparts.
The physically demanding nature of offshore work is here used as an excuse to enforce discriminatory attitudes, but is also a symptom of normative ideas about women and ‘traditional’ gender roles in the workplace. One person interviewed for the report recognised that this discrimination was less about the oil industry and more about long-entrenched societal attitudes:
“Women are not given the same opportunities, not because of the industry necessarily. But because of old traditions. Slowly we can overcome some of these problems, but not without time and the slow infiltration of other women colleagues.”
Perhaps it is too easy, for historians, to fall into the trap of thinking predominantly about women working in secretarial/office/factory roles. Although statistically this may have been the case, maybe we also need to think more about the experiences of women working in traditionally ‘male dominated’ industries.
So in the 30 years since this report was commissioned, has the situation in the oil industry changed for the better? Last year Sarah Darnley, a steward for an offshore catering company, died in a helicopter crash in which 3 other oil workers were also killed. As she was believed to be the first woman to have died in a North Sea oil rig incident, her death threw the spotlight on gender diversity in offshore work. Encouragingly, since 2006 the industry has seen an increase of 18.7% in the total numbers of females travelling offshore. However, this is just a 0.15% increase in the proportion of females relative to the total workforce population, which, in 2012, represented just 3.75% of the offshore workforce.
Field engineer Sophie Kellas McKenzie, interviewed for The Guardian following this incident, said that she had experienced some sexism In her job and hinted that such ideas are still in evidence: “one or two [men] have told me I couldn’t possibly help them with a physical task because I must be too weak, even though I’m probably stronger than a lot of them.” It’s possible that the industry still has some way to go.