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My friend, engineer Cloé Doucet, in Manitoba, on a spillway replacement job.

“The Lady Who Drives the Great Big Truck”!

Throughout my travels across Canada – purposed to interview veterans of the mining, metallurgy and petroleum sectors, one of the questions I asked was: How present (or absent) were women in the workplace? To which I would get the recurring answer: essentially none. Most rather seasoned interviewees would tell me that at the time, there were simply no women in engineering schools. Howbeit, many women found administration jobs within the natural resources world.

“… when I go to schools to talk to the kids, they don’t want to talk to me, they want to talk to the lady who drives the great big truck!”

In recent history, several companies have made efforts to increase the number of women in skilled labour positions. Eric Newell, former CEO of Syncrude, explains how the company implemented the Bridges program in the mid-90s, a program that encouraged female employees to transition from their administrative roles to the male dominated workplace. “They had two weeks to learn about the technical trades, then they would job shadow and finally, they would work a 28 day work cycle. […] None ever asked to go back. In the end, 25% of our 400 tonne truck drivers were women (as opposed to 4-5% before). And we won employer of the year award (Maclean’s) […] Now, when I go to schools to talk to the kids, they don’t want to talk to me, they want to talk to the lady who drives the great big truck!”

 

Ground-level perspective of a heavy hauler and a shovel at Syncrude. Courtesy of Syncrude Canada Ltd.

Today, women comprise 25% of the heavy truck driver workforce at Syncrude. Courtesy of Syncrude Canada Ltd.

Nowadays, women represent the majority of young university graduates, and although engineering programs are still renowned for seldom having women, registration has considerably risen. That said, women remain less likely to choose or find employment in any STEM areas. This stands in contrast to nearly all other fields of study, where women now make up the majority of graduates. What explains this phenomenon? Why are women more reluctant and less likely to find a job in natural resources?

Parents, teachers, mentors all play very important roles for a young woman.

“Somehow in the mining world, we haven’t succeeded… women have not found it very appealing,” says Dr. Samuel Marcuson, former Vice President at Vale. “When I started working in the 1970s and 1980s, in the work place you would find lots of pinup girls, naked women, pictures on the wall. And the women who joined the workforce at that time, clearly had to put up with that.” Although these kinds of actions have virtually been banned from the workplace, Marcuson explains that it took several decades for most companies to condemn it.

 

My friend, engineer Cloé Doucet, in Manitoba, on a spillway replacement job.

My friend, engineer Cloé Doucet, in Manitoba, on a spillway replacement job.

Today the workplace makes an effort to be much more inviting, but issues can still arise. Dr. Mary Wells, Associate Dean and Professor of Engineering at the University of Waterloo, explains that women can be subject to micro-aggressions. The latter are short, verbal or behavioral indignities, at times unintentional, that translate into slights. For instance, “a subtle example could be of a woman always getting a surprised reaction from others when she tells people in her field that she is an engineer,” explains Wells. “It can have a negative, eroding impact over time.” The work schedule of many jobs in the natural resources industry can also make it very difficult for any women to spend time with her family. In fact, “the drop off rate of women is much higher midway through their career […] as the work schedule is less flexible,” says Wells. On the brighter side, there are companies who offer mentorships and have become more flexible to the needs of families. “C E Zinc for example, has a company policy that all meetings must end by 4:30pm,” explains Wells. She has high hopes for the future as it has become much more common for men to be as involved as women in raising the family. As a result, responsibilities such as paternity leave or finishing work earlier to pick up the kids, have educated employers of the difficulties traditionally encountered by women.

Time will tell, but positive influence starts much earlier, says Wells. “Parents, teachers, mentors all play very important roles for a young woman.”

 

Photo courtesy of MiHR.

Photo courtesy of MiHR.

Acknowledgement:

Many thanks to Eric Newell, Sam Marcuson, Mary Wells and all other interviewees for your thoroughness and candor. A special mention to my dear friend Cloé, who is an exemplar in the field.

Header photo courtesy of the Mining Industry Human Resources Council

Sources:

Catalyst. Catalyst Quick Take: Women in Male-Dominated Industries and Occupations in U.S. and Canada. New York: Catalyst, 2013. http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/women-male-dominated-industries-and-occupations-us-and-canada

Hango, Darcy. Gender differences in STEM programs at university, Statistics Canada, December 18, 2013. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-006-x/2013001/article/11874-eng.htm

Marcuson, Sam. Interview with Sam Marcuson, Mining and Metallurgy Project, July 23, 2015. Toronto, Ontario, in person (William McRae)

Natural Resources Canada. 10 Key Facts on Canada’s Natural Resources, August 2014. https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/sites/www.nrcan.gc.ca/files/files/pdf/10_key_facts_nrcan_e.pdf

Newell, Eric. Interview with Eric Newell, Mining and Metallurgy Legacy Project. April 22, 2015. Edmonton, Alberta, in person (William McRae)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SAGD steam generators at Christina Lake, Alberta

Collecting the Science, Technologies, and Culture of the Oil Sands

Our guide points to a pink portable toilet, as I make a mental list of technologies that I want to acquire to document everyday life at a Fly-in Fly-out oil sands camp in Northern Alberta. She tells me that the toilet is a symbol of the changing workforce. Now almost 40% of workers at the site are women; they occupy administrative as well as technical positions. This is an important story that shows the transformation of Canadian society that we are mandated to document in the national collection. Yet only 12 % of our natural resources artifacts depict women’s professional lives. Looking at the collection, you would think that 88% of women in Canada still stay at home.

 

Christina Lake in-situ operation. Photo: Cenovus

Christina Lake, Alberta in-situ operation. Photo: Cenovus

I am visiting in-situ oil sands operations with Jason Armstrong, Coordinator of the Canadian Energy Literacy Network. It is an opportunity for us to see and better understand these sites. It is also an opportunity to connect with people in the field, talk about their and our work, and lobby for artifacts. We have a small, but significant collection of petroleum-related objects: prospecting and exploration technologies, drills and drill bits, artifacts from Petrolia, and the Ocean Ranger forensic collection. My focus during this trip is on collecting SAGD (Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage), CSS (Cyclic Steam Stimulation), directional drilling, and hydraulic fracturing technologies.

SAGD steam generators at Christina Lake, Alberta

SAGD steam generators at Christina Lake, Alberta

I also want to provide some social context to these technologies, including gender representation. Who are the people improving, running, and monitoring these technologies? What is their education? What are their values? How do they deal with the constant criticism directed at their industry?

CSS wells at Cold Lake, Alberta

CSS wells at Cold Lake, Alberta

 

I talk to scientists at Imperial Oil, some of the best–and the most humbled–in their field, about decreasing the environmental impacts of the CSS and SAGD. This is definitely on their minds. We talk about challenges around proprietary research and scientific cooperation in a very competitive industry. It is difficult to “collect” what they do, but we try to make a list together: smaller test instruments and crucial parts of larger equipment, the first SAGD test devise, which sits in the corner of the lab (sorry, no photos in the lab), and well monitoring software and communication equipment.

Directional drill bent at 2 degrees to create a horizontal well

Directional drill bent at 2 degrees to create a horizontal well

Precision seamed slotted liner for horizontal  wells. Oil seeps into the pipe, while sand is too large to go through the slots

Precision seamed slotted liner for horizontal wells. Oil seeps into the pipe, while sand is too large to go through the slots

Collecting from a Fly-in Fly-out camp is equally challenging. The camp works as a technological and social system. A piece of technology that we can accession to the collection will never truly preserve this system. The camp employs several hundred people from cleaners and cooks to power engineers. A typical shift is eight to twelve hours, and the people that we talk to, stay at the camp for between seven to eighteen days at a time. There is a gym, a squash court, a music room, a theatre to socialize after work, and there is apparently lots of dating going on too. Any acquisition from a Fly-in Fly out camp will have to include objects related to work but also leisure. We need SAGD and CSS technologies, but we also need a treadmill, and a drum set. And we definitely need one of the pink, portable toilets.

Kitchen at Christina Lake, AB camp open 24-hours

Kitchen at Christina Lake, Alberta camp open 24-hours