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Good pay lures more women to offshore oil jobs but they're still far outnumbered

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - 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.

Barnes concedes that working offshore in three-week stints may not suit women who have children or want to start a family. But being away from home isn't easy for the men who head offshore either, he said.

"While this lifestyle is certainly not for everyone, some parents do make it work."

Barnes said more obvious progress includes the number of women working for oil and gas companies on land, and those who do brief stints at sea as welders or in other non-traditional jobs.

"The industry has made inroads here in the last decade or so and we are seeing many more women in science, engineering and technology-type positions onshore."

There's a growing business case to use the province's untapped female labour pool, said Nicole Kieley, executive director of Women in Resource Development Corp., a group that promotes women in trades and technology.

She cited great strides in terms of gender policies on the books and expectations for new developments like the Hebron offshore oil project, officially sanctioned Dec. 31.

"But it's slower in culture," she said of ongoing struggles with some supervisors and unions who are less welcoming and accommodating than others.

Growing demand for labour has a way of breaking down such resistance, Kieley said. And in Newfoundland and Labrador, there's no shortage of planned developments — including the $7.7-billion Muskrat Falls hydro megaproject — that could open more doors for women.

Provincial NDP Leader Lorraine Michael worked with Kieley's group before entering politics six years ago and says progress has been too slow. She still hears concerns that equipment and clothing, such as immersion or survival suits, are not gender specific, she said. Sizing is generally a range of small, medium or large but gloves, for example, may be too large for a woman's typically smaller hands.

It's the kind of seemingly minor complaint that could make a big difference if getting to safety meant climbing a rope ladder.

"I would have hoped by now the issue would have been totally taken care of, but my information is that it still is a problem," Michael said. "The gender-specific sizing does exist but you have to look for it."

She believes there's a need for more gender diversity committees and training.

"The reality is, it's not easy for women to be in these male-dominated work sites. Both for the men and the women, there's a need for the issue to be recognized."

Sean Kelly, a spokesman with the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board which regulates oil activity, said operators are required as of last year to issue quarterly and annual public reports on benefits plans. They include such aspects as employing more women and other under-represented groups.

"Companies operating in the N.L. offshore have taken a proactive approach to this matter, particularly as it relates to gender equity and the participation of women in the workforce generally," Kelly said in an email.

A boost to the number of women employed offshore would be welcome, said the female worker who asked not to be identified.

"You need someone to interact with. You can be one of the guys but it's still nice to be able to talk to a female."

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