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Women in FIFO Away Work: Part 1 – The Fierce Cub in the Oil and Gas Pride

As discussed in my ‘What is a Fly-In Fly-Out Worker?’ blog, away workers extend far beyond the realms of the FIFO community. Further to this, it is not just men who up and leave their partners, families and friends to pursue a career.

All industries that survive and revolve around sending workers away from their homes for extended periods of time, often to remote and isolated locations, owe their ongoing success to women in their work force. From the female leaders of organisations, experts in their field; women in technical roles, support services or trades; to the partners, sisters, daughters and mothers left behind – women are an integral part.

Women face the same challenges as their male counterparts while working away, as well as some additional ones that come with the territory of working in some male dominated industries.

I have asked one such woman for her insight into what working away from home means to her.

She is an inspirational woman. She has been an integral part of one of Australia’s largest projects for many years and has built and maintained the respect of her colleagues in every part of her working journey. She has successfully pursued her career in a male dominated industry with interstate travel, moves overseas and extended periods on a FIFO roster.

FIFO Australia

These are her thoughts:

I’ve worked as an engineer in the Oil & Gas industry for the best part of the last 10 years. During this time, travel has been a constant feature of my job in one form or another. I’ve made countless trips to locations all over the world to witness equipment testing in vendor factories, attend training courses, or participate in industry forums. I spent almost five years living overseas on expat assignments in Houston and in London and I’ve recently completed a two-year stint of working FIFO to a remote location on a two week on/two week off roster.

While all of this has made for a lot of adventure and excitement, it still meant that I have spent a lot of time away from family and close friends in order to pursue my career goals. However, I can without question say that the Passporttravelling I have done as part of my job has been incredibly fulfilling. In a purely professional context it has hugely broadened my experience and exposure within my company and given me real insight into how best to work and
interact with people from all over the world. This is something which has proven to be immensely valuable in such an international and multicultural industry.

In a personal context, the benefits of my work travel have been even more valuable. It has helped me to grow in confidence and independence as I challenged myself to step out of my comfort zone. Moving unaccompanied to the other side of the world taught me that I could figure pretty much anything out on my own – that it wasn’t really that hard to set up a bank account in a foreign country, or to get car insurance, or to learn to drive on the wrong side of the road.

Having to make friends in cities where I had none taught me to say ‘yes’ to invitations that I might otherwise have turned down. I have developed the skill of being someone who is willing to give things a try, which I think is an important part of growing as a person both in and out of the workplace.

I started working FIFO after a little over 7 years in the Oil & Gas industry. Having worked for so long in a male-dominated industry and having already done so much travelling I have to admit I didn’t think I would find it particularly hard to adjust to the FIFO lifestyle, but there are elements to the FIFO life that made it an entirely different beast.

For one thing, there really are not many women on site. There are certainly a few, and the numbers are increasing! But still nowhere near the 50/50 split of normal life, or even the 80/20 split of my Engineering course quoteat university. This means that women stand out, whether they want to or not. It took a while to adjust to the way that seemingly trivial actions would be noticed and commented upon. “I saw you buying an ice-cream last night!” or “I saw you going out for a run!”

While almost always meant in a friendly spirit, it was still an odd and uncomfortable feeling to know that I was being watched while going about my normal (and very unexciting!) business. The plus side, though, is that having such a clear point of difference made it very easy to be memorable. The fact that my face and my name stood out in a sea of male faces and names gave me an amazing opportunity to get my hard work and successes noticed by people who could help make a difference to my career.

Another unexpected aspect of FIFO life was that personal interactions with co-workers are very different on site. When working away it can be hard to stay connected to friends and family back home. I often felt isolated from the life I had left behind, and family and friends found it hard to understand what I was doing or to keep track of when I’d be coming home. Given these feelings of disconnection, the natural inclination is to lean on the people around you on site.

This can be a really positive thing in some ways. I became much closer to my colleagues and knew a lot more about them as people outside of work than I ever did when working in an office. This led me to forge some strong friendships and set up a support network of people who understood exactly what challenges I was facing and what I was going through. These friendships were predominantly with other women – while there may not be many of them on site, the ones there are tend to be good ones!

The downside to this, however, is that boundaries can far more easily become blurred, even if you don’t want them to be. I am an open and friendly person by nature – I like to form connections with the people around me. When working in traditional office jobs there is a much clearer distinction between ‘work’ life and ‘home’ life. I have never experienced any major issues in this environment, even though they have always been very male-dominated.

wonder-woman-comic-5-things-you-need-to-know-ftr

But people working FIFO spend at least as many evenings with their colleagues as they do with their families. They don’t automatically have that daily reinforcement and reconnection of going home to their partners every night. And once those feelings of disconnection set in, it is very easy once again to turn to the people around you and start looking for the wrong sort of connections there instead.

Also let’s be honest, it is much easier to cheat on your partner when you’re working FIFO – there’s no need to make up excuses for not coming straight home from work or to invent business trips away! So after a couple of very awkward encounters I found I had to become much more guarded in my interaction with some people on site so as to avoid giving the wrong impression.

The main thing that I took out of my FIFO experience, however, was exactly that – the experience. It is very common to hear people in my industry sneering at ‘office’ engineers who have never spent time in the field and have no idea what it’s like ‘in the real world’. To have the opportunity to prove that as a woman I am just as capable of working in a FIFO role has been incredibly valuable. Having earned my stripes in a site context has given me a credibility that I don’t believe I could have acquired any other way.

I have always felt respected by my colleagues and been confident in my abilities, but my time on site has made the difference between me sitting in a meeting saying “are you sure that’s right?” and me sitting in a meeting saying “no, that’s not right”. I am a more assertive and confident professional and a stronger person for the experience, which has made even the most challenging parts more than worthwhile.

Woman on a Rock

I hope you have enjoyed reading this as much as I did. I think this gives great insight into the challenges and rewards that can be achieved by women not only in this industry but across the board in away work.

Also, hopefully this is motivation and a great example for at least one budding female engineer out there to take the plunge and pursue her career ambitions through working away!

Do you know or work with some inspirational women in tough workplaces? I’d love to hear about them and am sure a lot of other people would also.

Until the next instalment, keep safe and stay connected!

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