A Power Plant is a Good Place to be FROM (A Female Perspective)
I never thought that being in a male-dominated field would be so difficult for a woman. I was often in college classes with only one to a handful of women – I was studying mechanical engineering. It was not an issue, and we got along well with the guys. No one prepared me for what I would encounter once I began working.
After college, I was hired by an energy utility company. After a training period (where I was sent to a nuclear power plant twice – 3 weeks total), I was assigned to a coal-fired power plant for over 5 years.
I was the first and only female inside the power plant - there was a temporary replacement front desk clerk who was female (but she was very jealous of me coming into... “her territory” - I was so happy when the original desk clerk came back to work - she was great!).
Below are things I had to put up with:
• There was smoking in the office, and smoking was everywhere (I have always been a non-smoker).
• Coal dust was everywhere.
• Asbestos dust was in the air.
• Men did not trust me in what I did. A woman had no credibility.
• Some of my bosses perceived me to be a secretary type to do their typing and such.
• There were nudie pin-ups everywhere.
• There were nudie magazines in the bathrooms (called "reading material") and guys would spend lots of time in those bathrooms. The bathrooms were always disgusting.
• When the men’s wives called on the phone, and I answered, they would often get terse or hostile with me.
• There were many unfounded rumors about me.
• Management decided I needed a women's bathroom with a shower, so the maintenance department built a bathroom, changing area and shower. I figured they likely built a peephole too - so I didn't use the shower (I lived less than 5 minutes away so there was no need to shower there, anyway). I always had a jacket covering me when using the facility.
• It was easier to wash my work clothes if hosed I them off first, from all the ground-in dust and oil.
• One boss started a cash pool to have the guys guess my measurements - and he asked me to tell him what my measurements are, so that he could pick a winner - what??? I was so angry and hurt – no, I didn't tell him or anyone! Then I realized I was probably being sized up and stared at by the people in the power plant.
• Sometimes the guys in my office went out for liquid lunch - so I had to cover for them in the afternoon, while they hung out at the lake until they sobered up.
• One day, the mechanics decided to sit on the stairs leading to my office area, keeping me from going up. I was frustrated but had steel toed shoes on, so I climbed over them to get to where I needed to go – I’m not sure if I hurt anyone, but they never blocked me again.
• One time, I was going to check the vibration on a fan (it was a really big fan), but when I opened the door to the room, a guy was peeing into the drain hole. I dropped the door handle in shock, but then I decided that I was supposed to be in there (and he was not supposed to be doing that), so I walked in. He had run quickly out with an arc of pee dropping from the air. He had apparently gone to the control room and confessed - so within an hour, there were notices posted around that explained to the men to use the restrooms, and not any other part of the plant.
• I was asked several times to sleep with some of the guys - one was frustrated because his wife was pregnant and “unappealing” - no, I did not oblige.
• Guys looked up the catwalks to try to see something (as if anyone can see anything with my jeans/overalls on?).
• Women would get rated as they walked by the welder area - they'd all come out and watch us walk and rate us (this was at the next plant, where I worked for 6 months after 5 years at the first one). • I was expected to lift, carry, and bear heavy loads just as the men did, but no safety equipment for it. I only had safety glasses, earmuffs, hard had and steel toe shoes but nothing for the back. I did have a back injury while working there.
Changes were made over time. Nudie posters came down, though in large they remained inside the maintenance tool cabinets. More safety procedures were put into place. The men learned to respect me more and realized I could contribute. They eventually realized that I was very good with balancing rotating equipment (I became one of 3 “balancing experts” in the company). We spent many hours, usually nights balancing, because the large equipment could be taken out of service at night, when energy load was lower. The operators grudgingly let me teach them how to use the computer – when the controls were switched out from pneumatic to electronic. The plant manager once took me for a walk and asked me about situations – he made changes, including transferring the then current boss out, and stopping the liquid lunches.
In all truth, this power plant turned out to become more bearable in many ways, over the 5 years. I am fortunate that no one forced himself on me – but I was very assertive about that. I made a few friends in the plant who looked out for me. The second plant was never comfortable for me to work at, even with more women there. I was once approached to sue the company for the discrimination I dealt with (I didn’t sue, as I felt I would have trouble finding another job, with the stigma of the lawsuit on my back, and I knew it would be very emotional).
I honestly was part of the “#MeToo” culture. I endured a great deal of adversity, being a woman in a man’s work field. I’m just glad that I helped make changes that would help other women after me.
My motto has become: "A power plant is a good place to be FROM." P.R. Safety Equipment if you need any - things have changed and more available.