And couples in companies?

Last week, I was celebrating my tenth article for the Usine Nouvelle blog. Ten article without mentioning my husband once, a huge achievement for me!

Therefore, today I’m going to talk about the thematic of couples in companies.

I met David on an oil rig in Nigeria. In other words, in a romantic atmosphere. Wearing my work helmet and my security boots, I’d put all the chances on my side. That being said, being the only woman on this structure in the middle of the sea, my charm didn’t need any artifice.

When our company found out that we were a couple, the reactions were rather mixed. They were already struggling with having a woman field engineer,they now had to handle a couple. Yet, we weren’t in the same service, and there was no interaction or possible conflict of interest to fear. We were way too far down the ladder to have that kind of power.

The reaction was simple. They decided to transfer me. It was the easiest and most radical way to solve the issue. Needless to say, with the lives we had– the amount time we spent on the rig and the little vacation we had, it was like asking us to break up. Long distance relationships, at a time where the means of communication were limited, was not conceivable. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, in 1990 Nigeria, I used to send urgent messages by telex!

The HR director for Africa asked to talk to me and told me to make a choice. “It took me three months to get a job, 24 years to find a husband… who do you think I’m going to pick?”

And that’s how I found myself jobless. At first, I really enjoyed the free time, especially after spending 3 years working 6.5 days/week with crazy hours. But quickly, I got bored and went on a job hunt.

It was 26 years ago. At the time, when two people started dating within a same company, one of them had to leave. In this case, it was me. The decision had nothing to do with the fact that I was a woman – it was simply because I was the one who was asked to make a choice.

And today, how have our careers evolved?

On Schlumberger’s end, once their gender diversity program began showing results, the double career issue, which I was a pioneer of, became a true challenge to address. And it was done. They ask couples to pick the one spouse that will become the lead of the career. The priority is then to find a job for the lead, and then to find a position that matches as much as possible the significant other’s ideals, if possible at the same place and at the same time.It worked for us during 15 years. It wasn’t always easy, and compromises had to be done, but we managed.

For an international company, there can be a lot of benefits to having couples. For instance, in Angola, the logistics of expatriate families were very complicated. First, the local infrastructures, after 22 years of civil war, were being rebuilt, which means that there was a huge shortage of houses,spots in school…etc. Plus, there were very little activities for the spouse,who, after a year, often asked to leave. In this case, the double career meant half the logistics, and a busy partner. A true win-win!

Knowing that 30% of relationships were formed at work, where do we stand today?

What does the law say? The French 1982 Auroux laws claim that “couple life isn’t within the scope of the company”. That means that we can’t be fired or transferred for it, but couples also can’t create trouble.

If the law states the ground rules, the reality of the company can be more complex, since a lot remain wary at the idea of having a couple in a service, for fear of disturbing the team (potential jealousy problems to handle), or unsuitable behaviors, or having two people team up against management, or having problems if one of them is under-performing. I’m not going to dwell on the list of fears, but rather on the consequences. All while complying with the law, a company can make the life of a couple difficult, until one decides to leave. For instance, sometimes voluntarily, management can transfer one to another service, or sometimes more subconsciously, it can delay a promotion. Similarly, if one is thinking about quitting, the partner can be put in an uncomfortable position.

For dual careers to happen in the best conditions possible, there a few ground rules to follow – no possibility of conflict of interest, no hierarchical connection, no common project. Never forget that we’re handling two individuals, not a couple: we don’t tell one the career options of the other…etc.

It is true that we can face unusual situations, like the time where,while I was working on the transfer of a couple, the husband told me not to look too much into finding a job for his wife because she didn’t know it yet,but he was about to leave her!

On the couple’s end, it’s important to accept a few compromises. Some people might be afraid of suffocating a little, not having much to talk about at night, not being able to handle the little flirts that can occur in a service… In our case, we were in the same company but never in the same service, so we weren’t tempted to talk about files at night, but being in the same company helped us support each other and better understand what the other one was going through on a daily basis.

Therefore, when I read that there’s a chance it might create bad vibes in the service because of potential jealousy, I think it just means that the couple has deeper issues to deal with!

In conclusion, I’ve had to manage a lot of double careers, including mine, and if I have to weigh the pros and the cons, the pros would win by far –you just need to apply commonsense rules, and there’s no reason for it to go wrong. The benefits for the company highly compensate all the potential problems.

How to start as a female in a male dominated industry

A woman starting out in an almost exclusively male environment may sometimes feel the need to impose herself and to be aggressive in order to avoid coming off as “weak”. We often hear “you must have quite a character to work in this sector!” That is the attitude I myself adopted when I first started, which I’ll describe and explain in further detail. This will also allow me to give you a few key elements on a successful entry into a new company (spoiler: don’t behave like me at 22).

I started at Schlumberger in the training center – we spend four months there, before going on the field. The formation allows you to learn about the job, but also serves as a method of selection, with only half of the applicants staying. Stress is at its paroxysm and we all look at each other wondering who will make it.

Being the only woman, I feel like I need not only to succeed, but to succeed brilliantly, to prove that the presence of a woman is not a mistake. In 1989, women only account for 1% of recruits. Thus, I have the impression that I am under a microscope, as a part of a laboratory experiment called: “What can a woman do in this role?” Failing would show that the trust invested in me was not deserved.

Added to this is a deep belief that a woman has to prove herself, show that she belongs here. Perhaps the vestige of a mother with the baccalaureate, working at a time where most women were full-time housewives? An unconscious bias that originates from our societal system? To be honest, I don’t really know, but it’s clearly a bias that resisted to the past decades and that I find in a lot of women today still.

Thus, during this training, I constantly have to do more. Except that these beliefs, this feeling of having to legitimize my place, aren’t without consequences.

I automatically consider every sign of attention towards me as a sign or paternalistic sexism. I bite every hand that comes my way. And quickly, it backlashes and hits me back in the face, in boomerang mode. My colleagues stop talking to me. They are tired of my constant anger and have better things to do tan to take care of an irascible woman/hungry lioness in a cage.

It’s a vicious circle. I’m very aggressive, the others answer hostilely, comforting me in the idea that I was right to be that way… Etc.

And then, one day, I start questioning myself. I realize that, although I’m always right (of course), the fact that everyone is against me shows that it might actually maybe, possibly be my fault… and that I need to change my behavior – especially since isolation is weighing me down.

In doing this analysis of conscience, I realized that I became very unpleasant to live with, so it’s not surprising that others hate my company.

After deciding to change mindsets, it became easier than I thought. How did the change occur exactly? First, I had to stop comparing myself to others. In the end, no one but myself had asked me to be the best. Secondly, instead of attacking every colleague offering help – to show that “no, sir, I can manage on my own! It’s not because I’m a woman that you should think I can’t do it!”, I kindly accept any good soul willing to help me. Thus, my colleagues quickly become friends, and I become a part of the group.

Being a woman in a male-dominated environment is hard enough, there’s no need to make things more complicated. Companies offer a job to a collaborator because they think he/she is the most qualified for the position. They usually don’t do it out of the goodness of their heart. Once the person has accepted the position, all that’s left is to work and excel at the job, as expected. But the person has nothing to prove, and just needs to focus on doing the job to the best of his or her ability. It’s by doing the job well that people show everyone that they are the right person for the mission. Thus, wanting to prove your worth as a woman, as I’ve done in the past, is completely counterproductive and unjustified. If she’s been offered the job, then she’s entirely legitimate.

Unfortunately, this trend isn’t dead yet. There’s still a long way to go before it disappears fully. Women still are (or feel) more tested than men. It’s important to resist and not get sucked into the game of colleagues, who have no right to judge our credibility and capacity to fulfill a position that company executives have trusted us with.

At 22, having the strength to question myself is what allowed me to continue and find my place and eventually end up where I am today. But for one person that finds a fit, how many give up? How many end up depressed?

Just like me, maybe their erratic behavior kept others away, without having the chance to fix things. Or a lack of confidence in their legitimacy got the best of them. That’s why it’s important to take a step back and remember that if you are in this seat, it is because qualified people believe that you belong there. An endless comparison won’t get you anywhere. Keep your head high and work with confidence and pride!

My first steps on a platform – part two

I was telling you in a previous article about my first steps on a platform, explaining the little hassles I faced. Today, I would like to discuss with you the notion of human relations. As you can imagine, being the only woman amongst 80 men wasn’t always simple.

During the first trips, I stay in the shadow of my tutor. I try to remain unnoticed, I make myself as small and possible and don’t go anywhere without him.

Being in training, I am not sure I understand what is happening around me, which doesn’t help me to assert myself. I’m not ready for the slightest confrontation; I don’t feel armed for that.

Nevertheless, my skillset expands rapidly. I become increasingly comfortable and start to gain in confidence.

And then one day, my tutor is called urgently on another mission. Ours isn’t finished, but what is left is easy enough for me to take over the project. There I am, alone for the first time.

A few minutes after his departure, while the helicopter is still in sight, the phone of our work unit rings. A voice, obviously a man’s, tells me that he’d like to get to know me better. My answer is icy : « this phone call is a mistake and I will forget it. But if you call me again, I will file a complaint against you to the head of the platform. »

You might be wondering, why such a violent reaction to this request ? Because this innocent request occurs in the middle of the sea, and I’m the only woman on board. I need to establish the rules from the start. And what might come off as a nice introduction in a normal environment cannot be allowed on a rig.

Thankfully, positioning myself from the first day was enough to build my reputation and no-one bothered me from that day on.

What happens if you don’t react like that? Actually it happened when a young intern joined us. She was much more polite than me, so she quickly became overwhelmed with requests of all kinds. Once again, nothing aggressive or mean, but it made her very uncomfortable and I had to intervene to make it stop.

A first clarification from the beginning is enough. Once the rules are established, it becomes possible to have friendly relations with colleagues, very nice indeed, because any kind of ambiguity has vanished. Again, I’m talking about an extreme environment. A woman who works in an environment that is almost exclusively male often understands the rules of the game as a result of an unpleasant experience. To avoid that, it is better to be firm from the start. Observe for a while, step-up and don’t let ordinary sexism shake you.

A few weeks later, once my training period is over, my first mission begins. It is a disaster. 30 years ago, we were constantly juggling with tools that take measurements at the bottom of the well, tickling the limits of that technology (> 120 degrees…etc.). Breakdowns can happen and our formation teaches us how to deal with them. My first solo job… and my first failure. This is a rather minor one, which doesn’t affect the hydrocarbon reservoir area, and therefore has no real impact. However, I submit a file with inconsistent results and erratic measures. The client, angry, seizes that opportunity to try and switch engineers to get « rid » of me. Long story short, he’s not willing to do me any favors and is certainly not ready to accept the inconveniences resulting from my inexperience. Having a woman on board is already complicated to manage, so he doesn’t tolerate any mistakes on her part.

I haven’t often been confronted to this kind of sexism, which requires women to be better than men and which doesn’t forgive anything. My boss supports me and I return to the same platform shortly after. This time, the mission runs smoothly – so much so that the client later asked my boss not to replace me. Once I had been accepted, he started appreciating what this feminine presence was bringing to the overall work atmosphere.

The first steps are difficult, to better walk the next ones.

My first steps on an oil rig

I’m 22 when I land in Nigeria (see my previous articles). I leave the comfort of the student life to enter that of the expatriate life. Another kind of comfort, but still a comfort, since we’re taken care of outside of work.

I share a room in a house with three other engineers. For lunch and dinner, we eat a delicious meal prepared by the company cook. A housekeeper, hired by the company, often comes to clean the house. Let’s just say that Nigeria is not going to turn me into the perfect housewife, despite my genes, which should make the learning process easier.

In town, when going to work at the base, I’m the only woman, surrounded by engineers. It doesn’t change from my mechanical engineering school, where we were only 5% of women. But the heart of my work, the missions, take place on the rig, where I spend on average 20 days a month.

The apprenticeship of the job takes about ten months. We start with four months in the formation center in Italy, followed by six months where we work in pairs with an experienced engineer. The formation ends when we take a real life test to make sure that we’ve reached the autonomy necessary for us to be entrusted with the operations of a rig.

On each trip, I’m the first woman to set foot on the rig that we’re going to, and they’re never prepared. On my end, I’m jaded by the third rig.

Their reactions? Always the same…

At first, the surprise. Even if my name appears on the helicopter passenger list, they don’t necessarily identify as it being woman’s name – I had to include somewhere that we go to work in a helicopter – pretty cool, no?

Once the surprise is over, the questions begin. Of course, I can’t avoid the interrogation. I know it’s nice curiosity, but it’s a little tiring to systematically have to justify yourself (why a woman chooses to do this job… etc.).

And finally, after recovering from the shock, the customer freaks out at the idea that a woman may disrupt his well-oiled machine. However, I have never experienced the excuse of “juju”. Unlike boats, women don’t seem to be a sign of bad luck on a rig.

First issue, where is she going to sleep? The rigs didn’t have female quarters in my time. At first, they insist on finding me an individual room – either the infirmary or the VIP room – but I don’t like that much. I’m noticed enough to begin with, I don’t need to receive extra preferential treatment.

The standard rooms have four bunk beds. I find a way to create a little cocoon in one of the bottom bunks with extra hanging blankets. This solution not only avoids hassles and « normalizes » me a little, but above all it allows me to stay with my team. Sleeping is no longer a problem… even if I still have to bear with the men’s snoring. But we sleep so little that we tend to crawl into our beds, rocked by the permanent purring of the rig’s engines.

The main issue is the bathroom. Once again, no female bathroom. It doesn’t necessarily bother me to share it with men. The only problem is that they tend to forget that I’m here, so they often get out of the sower naked, as usual… Which could lead to pretty embarrassing moments for us all.

I quickly realize that there’s an individual bathroom – the boss’ one. During every mission, I manage to convince him to share it with me, which he does happily, until the day he finds himself surrounded my lingerie (the legend says he still hasn’t gotten over it).

This leads me to the last issue, the washing of my underwear… Apart from the fact that I don’t really trust the machine made to wash our blue jumpsuits, the rig employees categorically refuse to touch these « impious » objects… So I have to wash them by hand. Washing them is alright, but what about the drying? Putting my panties to dry in a room that I share with my team is not very tempting – so the bathroom it will be!

No life lesson today! Just some funny little stories, reflecting some of the small difficulties that a woman sometimes faces in a male environment. It seems pretty minor when told like this, but sometimes it doesn’t take a lot more to dissuade women from coming. Each of these little disturbances can give the impression that one doesn’t belong there.

Next week, a few more indiscretions about my life on the platform.


International woman – Does it mean being alone?

I am very proud to have won the International Women’s Prize and I thank the jury for the Women’s Industry Awards. I am honored to have been nominated alongside outstanding competitors.

Let’s talk a little about women abroad!

I’ve lived on 4 continents in countries that many would find difficult to locate on a map, and I still continue to travel very frequently for my work. I am fast approaching one hundred countries visited.

Thirty years ago, I left for Nigeria as a Field Engineer, alone. Alone on an offshore drilling rig amongst 80 men,  Alone at the operations base and one of three women working as engineers for the company in Africa.

I’m used to being alone though. I lived a similar experience at university, with only 5% females studying Mechanical Engineering.

The situation was very different in the city of Warri. I’m alone at work, but also in the “city” – without means of external communication, without the option to make international phone calls, and without female company. I had a lot of male friends, but I couldn’t talk to them about typical women’s issues. Being immersed in such an environment at age 22, with no way of chatting and “gossiping” with a woman from time to time was not always easy, but it certainly strengthened my character!

Twenty years ago, I went to Indonesia. There were many expat women, but I was one of the few working. I had to explain to my daughters why I could not pick them up after school like all the other mums. That also meant having to deal with occasional jealousy from women who had sacrificed their own careers to follow their husbands. My situation showed that there was a possible alternative. The 1998 Indonesian crisis was another solo experience for me, as I stayed to represent the company, along with a lot of men to deal with the turbulent situation!

Ten years ago, I went Angola. Now I am starting to see some women in the company, mostly young engineers. Schlumberger’s diversity policy is paying off. But I remain the only female in meetings of the Business Representatives with the Embassy.

When three years ago, working in Shanghai, I realize that I know about ten expatriate women whose husbands decided to follow them – it seems like about 10% of non-working partners (followers) are men. That’s when I start telling myself that things are really changing.

But the best proof of change occurred a few months ago. I was in a tiny, remotely located Zambian airport and I saw five or six expatriate women on their own who were clearly there to work. Not the daughter of …, nor wife of …! I was so moved to see this that I felt like going over to kiss them. Certainly, they would think I was crazy, but I was truly happy!

So yes, there is progress. The day when women’s mobility becomes obvious, we will have taken a big step with regards to unconscious bias towards gender equality.

Chapter 5 – Un travail pas comme les autres

Un travail pas comme les autres

Je suis la seule stagiaire de la base et les ingénieurs se donnent le mot pour m’emmener sur le rig. J’effectue de nombreuses missions en un temps record. Cela a pour conséquence de m’aguerrir et l’ingénieur en titre me laisse de plus en plus d’opportunités de travailler directement sur l’ordinateur.

Continue reading → Chapter 5 – Un travail pas comme les autres

Chapter 1 – Et tout commençât…

Je suis arrivée un petit peu en avance, pas trop, juste assez pour être polie. Surtout, ne pas leur laisser voir ma nervosité.

Je me retourne. A côté de moi un jeune cadre dynamique, caricature du jeune loup aux dents longues, costume gris et cravate à la mode. Un peu plus loin, emprunté dans ses habits du dimanche, un Indiana Jones qui ne tient pas en place. A ma gauche, l’éternel premier de la classe, auquel ne manquent même pas les lunettes. Je continue mon petit tour, nous sommes douze en tout, moyenne d’age, environ 22 – 25 ans. Tous en veste et cravate. Que des cravates? Quelle surprise ! Pas d’autre “elle” à l’horizon. Une contre onze. La bataille va être rude

Continue reading → Chapter 1 – Et tout commençât…