Wearing my Crocodile Suit to Work

12 Mar 2020 Katrina James

I was brought up to believe I could achieve and do what I wanted in a career. As a girl and young woman, I felt my opinion was valued. If the world was my oyster, education at home and school was the pearl. But as I entered the world of work, I discovered a belief system different from my own.

I started work as an Occupational Health Nurse in oil, gas and manufacturing industries nearly thirty years ago. For the first fifteen of those, I could be the only female on a site with hundreds of men. I would be the only female in meetings. It’s fair to say these industries were male domains.

On work sites, I was constantly reminded I was an outsider, and visibly different. Even if I worked for the same company, I was on someone else’s territory–men’s turf. As I entered sites I felt uneasy and sometimes unsafe, particularly late at night. Nobody ever had my back.

There was no uniform available in women’s sizes, so I compiled a made-up kit to meet the requirements of long-sleeved shirt, long pants and safety boots. My safety boots weren’t just different, they didn’t even fit. There were none available in my small size.

Years on, I realised how hard it was for the young me just to walk onto a site. I was on the bottom rung before my work day began. I wasn’t welcome and that was made clear. I felt vulnerable but learned to cover feelings up and do my job.

By mid-career, I could articulate and communicate clearly to get the job done. I developed inner toughness and this became an outer toughness. Heading out to potentially challenging sites, I imagined putting on my ‘crocodile suit’. Even though I was mid-career, some days I felt like an apprentice. As a woman working in heavy industry, it was still tricky. So, I found some tricks. For example, I learned not to walk into the crib (the shipping container used as lunch-room) unannounced. I’d knock and call out–to announce my female self–before entering; to avoid putting off the male occupants. I learned not to swear, and to not take swearing personally–unless it was personal.

By the mid 1990s, some sites had introduced women’s change rooms and toilets. It had certainly been a tough journey for this lone woman.

In later years, the role grew, and I grew with it through my own experience. Clarity, compassion and deeper listening emerged, replacing my crocodile suit. My maturity and experience were respected. Other professionals (both men and women) asked how I was able to engage tough working men in conversations about their health and safety. I began to feel part of the place. I even had a uniform that fitted. Gender diversity was on the move and I witnessed some women being recognised for adding value, in what was traditionally a male workplace.

On one occasion, female engineers were complaining about a work site. I was asked to professionally mentor these graduates, who were considered to be ‘flight risks’. The business had invested in these young women over the course of their studies, now there were concerns they would resign. The male dominant workforce and manufacturing site presented issues. These women were highly intelligent, motivated and driven. I was tasked to investigate and make recommendations, so the company didn’t lose them.

One graduate had been posted to a night-time supervisory position. Her area of the plant was open-plan, isolated, quiet and badly lit. The section had no door locks. In a word, she told me it felt creepy.

I arranged to visit on a shift and met the night crew. They were all men. Aged around fifty-five, none had been supervised by a female before, ever. I could hear and see their uncertain attitude and felt her concerns. This new graduate had lots of knowledge about the product, quality, output and work to be done, but she lacked on- site support and security.

With the help of her managers and site security, we resolved this woman’s issues and she did stay with the company. But this is one example where the company cared enough about their investment to take care of a female staff member. It certainly helped I’d had my own experiences as well as safety and health qualifications.

I’ve been speaking to young women about survival techniques for much of my career. I show them how to navigate the system to resolve their issues. I want to help more women, so they can avoid needing to wear their own crocodile suits. The more advice I can pass on to young women in male-dominated industries, the more we can build individual and corporate resilience, knowledge and wisdom.

I eventually left Occupational Nursing to become an ergonomist, in the same sectors of oil, gas and manufacturing. Ergonomics has a proactive role in the health and wellbeing of workers, including how individuals and teams cope with their work.

I continue to draw on my personal experiences to support female workers. Heavy industries are looking for ways to increase gender diversity. If you are a female in this situation or a leader looking for ways to support women, I can help. Businesses thrive when women’s resilience is improved. Value is added by improving everyone’s engagement with and acceptance of female workers.

Katrina James