By Laura Tode
Christina Chauvin arrived in Bainville, Mont. on February 15, 2011, just after a snowstorm swept across Montana’s Hi-line. She’d spent her entire life in Louisiana, and although she knew she was being delivered to a cold place, she had no idea what else to expect. Everything was frozen, including the fifth-wheel camper that was now home.
To say that last winter was harsh is an understatement, but life the Williston Basin isn’t easy. With its long hours, harsh working conditions and extreme physical demands, the Bakken is a man’s world, where many men don’t last. So what brings a woman to the oil frontier?
Starting Over, Again
Chauvin works for Dual Trucking Inc., selling the company’s services across the Bakken. She had never driven in snow when she set out for Williston in search of warm clothes. Her first purchase was a pair of insulated Muck boots. Those boots, it turns out, are her lucky charm. Later that day, she made her first sale. Now she wears her Muck boots year-round on every call.
Chauvin is 50, though she doesn’t look it with her curly red hair pulled back into a ponytail. She’s no newcomer to the oil and gas industry. Her whole career has been in sales in the facilities side of the oil and gas industry. Even 15 years ago, a woman in her line of work was rare. She made good living until Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005; like thousands of New Orleans residents, she lost everything.
“I tried to stay; but mentally, I couldn’t take it,” Chauvin says.
So she moved to Huston and invested money from a settlement on her house into a diving company that built and repaired underwater pipelines. Before the company could turn a buck, the Deepwater Horizon explosion happened. The oil spill that it caused triggered a moratorium on drilling. For the second time in only a few years, Christina was left with nothing.
That was until she was approached by the owners of a trucking company in Louisiana who had expanded their business to the Bakken. They needed someone in sales, and they rightly heard that she was among the best.
“I’m very confident,” Chauvin says, neither proud nor aiming to impress. “I just get out there and do whatever I need to do.”
That’s been Chauvin’s style her whole life. Five great grandfathers back in Chauvin’s family tree sits Daniel Boone, an American icon, a pioneer, frontiersman and explorer. Chauvin’s got a little of his blood and whole lot of his spirit.
“I’m proud that I had the gumption to come up here,” she states.
Earning a Living
The population in the Williston Basin is in flux, so it’s difficult to estimate how many women are working in the Bakken. Some estimate that there are 10 men for every one woman. Fewer still are the women working in the oil and gas and construction industries. It’s a tough way to earn a living, and not everyone is cut out for it.
“It’s high-octane stress out here,” says Loree Olsen, leaning on the railing of a contractors’ trailer at the site of a new hotel under construction in Ray, North Dakota. It’s the end of a long, hot, dusty day in August and Loree’s Boston Red Sox baseball cap is turned backward. A carpenter’s pencil is tucked behind her ear alongside her blonde hair. Olsen is a master plumber and crew leader for Mechanical Innovations. The company is known for its quick turnaround on jobs, and Olsen has worked in Idaho, Montana, and now North Dakota, mainly building hotels and truck stops.
Ask her why she’s there, in Ray, and she’s got a three-word answer: “Hunger, cleats, and college.”
Olsen owns Progress Plumbing and Heating based out of Helena, Mont. and in the last few years, work has dried up back home. She needed to find a way to put food on the table. Her son, a standout athlete, plays high school baseball and football; sports gear doesn’t come cheap for a growing boy. Her daughter is in college at Montana State University, and Olsen wants to help her out as much as she can.
“It’s worth it to have my family taken care of,” Olsen states. “Anytime I forget why I’m here, I pull their pictures up on my phone. I’m not here for myself.”
Most days, being a woman in a man’s world doesn’t even enter Olsen’s mind. She manages a crew of about 15 plumbers. All of them are men. To the crew, she’s more boss than woman. Talk on the construction site can get dirty, but Olsen doesn’t let it get to her. She’s there to do a job, and that’s her focus.
“You have to callous up a little bit,” Olsen says.
Under the tough exterior, Olsen has a big forceful personality, a goofball sense of humor and a direct manner of speaking. She’s fair and appreciates hard work. Despite the challenges, working in the Bakken is exactly where she wants to be. She always wanted to take on a leadership role and tackle bigger projects. Joining Mechanical Innovations gave her a shot at management, and she’s reached a significant milestone in her career.
“This is what I wanted to be doing at this stage in my life,” Olsen states.
A Mother as President
There are opportunities in the Bakken for everyone – men and woman alike – but it takes hard work, sacrifice and a willingness to take a risk. Michele Weiss saw opportunity in the Bakken when the oil boom first started to take shape and, in the past five years, she’s managed to lead a company and raise a family.
Weiss and her husband Luke own Chaznline Construction, a pipeline company based in Fairview, Mont. When they started the company, it only took a matter of days for business to take off, and it has grown steady every day since. She’s the president and handles all the front office duties, including ordering and accounts management as well as dealing with accountants, consultants and legal staff. Her husband heads up all the field work, managing a staff of 50 employees and dealing with clients and landowners.
“I try to be a mom more than the president of a company,” Weiss says.
She tries to only work while her son, 10, and daughter, six, are in school. Still, the children spend more time in the office after school and on holidays and weekends than Weiss would like.
“I always promise them it’s only going to be a few minutes; but sometimes it ends up being hours,” she says.
When the family isn’t together at the office, it always seems like they’re on the road, taking parts out to the crews in the field; or if it’s going to be a late night, Weiss will pick up dinner and run it out to her employees. If she’s not behind the wheel, she’s on the phone, and often it’s both (via a hands-free device). She didn’t have much management experience when she started, but quickly learned. Among her hardest-learned lessons is not to let things – big or small – bother her.
“If I do, it brings my whole house down. It’s not just at work,” Weiss comments. “Finally, you have to say, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do.’”
From her vantage, Weiss doesn’t notice any bias against women working in the oil and gas industry. If they can do the work and stand the hours they’ll have no problem finding a job. The problem is housing, she says. Man camps are no place for a woman, and some of the trailer parks and overcrowded hotels can be dangerous.
Olsen has her own fifth-wheel camper that she lives in. She tried bunking with her crew, but it didn’t work out – not because she couldn’t handle it, but because she decided they needed a break from their boss as much as she needed one from them. Olsen agrees with Weiss. The biggest obstacle for women in the Bakken isn’t discrimination; it is housing. Many companies don’t mind hiring women, but if they offer housing, which most do, they can’t usually offer separate quarters for women.
Home on the Bakken
After two years in the Bakken spent living in a camper and eating her meals from convenience stores, Anita Hayden is finally moving into a home of her own. She’s looking forward to cooking her own dinner and having her own washer and dryer. The long hours and cold winters took some getting used to, but she never liked the camper.
Hayden works as a roustabout for Drakin Oil Field Construction, and she catches almost everyone by surprise at first meeting. When she climbs out of the cab of her trackhoe, they’re either stunned that she’s a woman or blown away by her age – or both. Not only is Hayden one of the only woman trackhoe operators in the Bakken; at 22, she’s probably one of the youngest operators as well. Need another surprise? She is also a crew boss.
“It’s actually kind of fun, because everyone has to listen to me,” Hayden says. “But being a boss can be frustrating and it’s sometimes overwhelming.”
Hayden’s earned the respect of her peers with hard work. She grew up on a farm outside Baker, Mont. so she has been in the cab of big machinery since she was a little girl. After high school, she went to work for a pipeline company to earn money for college, but after working two summers in the oilfield, Hayden decided to put her education on hold and work full-time in the Bakken. She was studying accounting, and although it would have been a good living, it seemed boring compared to roustabout work.
“The first time I ever ran a trackhoe, I about bucked myself out the window. I was going way too fast for my skill level,” Hayden says wryly. “Every time you jump into it, it gets a little easier.”
Hayden lived in a camper along with the rest of the Drakin crew at the company’s shop, but she and her boyfriend bought a piece of land across the road, and this fall, they plan to move into a modular home. Having a real place to call home will make the long days easier, she says.
On the job, Hayden doesn’t feel any discrimination; but off the jobsite, her minority status is difficult to avoid. Even in the small outpost of McGregor where she knows most everyone, she’s still a target for unwanted attention from men at the local bar. She knows better than to go anywhere by herself.
Chauvin is careful too, and doesn’t fraternize with anyone outside the trucking company she works for.
“There’s so many men it can be dangerous,” Chauvin says. “Living so many years in New Orleans, I’m pretty street smart; but I don’t take chances.”
Chauvin doesn’t know how long she’ll stay in the Bakken. It’s a good living; but it’s a tough living to make. At least two years – longer if she can.
“I’m living for today. If I look too far into the future, I’ll get scared,” Chauvin says.by