“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.”
Those comments got me thinking. After all, North Dakota’s oil fields have been portrayed as an unsafe place for women. A new weekly drama from ABC called “Oil!” which is supposedly set in North Dakota – though that’s hard to tell with the snowcapped 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.”
[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]“I tend to think that the women who do want technical professional jobs don’t get scared away that easily,” she said. [/mks_pullquote]
So I decided I would speak to some women who have some real experience working in North Dakota’s oil patch. I selected four women from a cross section of jobs. Kathy Neset is a 30 year veteran of the North Dakota oil fields and the president of Neset Consulting Services. Julie Fedorchak is one of North Dakota’s top regulators. Lynn Welker is part of the management team at Panther Pressure Testers. Rebecca Rigal is an immigrant from Germany who lost her job as a horse trainer during the recession and came to Bakken region to drive truck. She now owns two trucks and her own trucking company.
I wrote about what they told me at Watchdog today, and it runs contrary to the popular narrative about the oil fields being unsafe for women.
They told me that there are plenty of opportunities for women in the energy industry, and they expressed frustration with comments like those from Steingraber which they said could deter women from seeking those opportunities, though Neset said she thought the deterrence would be negligible.
“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.”
They also told me that they feel safe working in the oil fields. “I’ve never felt unsafe myself,” Rigal 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.”