What is it like for a woman in the trades?

Do you ever wonder what the experience is like for a woman working in a predominantly male occupation? It has its highs and lows but is often a hugely rewarding experience. Being challenged and offered interesting opportunites is what keeps employees engaged and motivated, so with that in mind our inaugural Keynote Award Winner Pip Buunk shares the honest ups and downs of being one of the only females in the trenches....

I’ve had some interesting experiences being one of few females on site, but as more and more women choose jobs in traditionally male careers, the crap we get becomes less and less. It’s becoming normal to bump into another women tradie or engineer on site, or as on one of my recent jobs there were 4 of us working on site and three of us were female. We all thought that was pretty cool!

I’m the first female most of the companies I’ve worked for have employed in a field position. It took me a while to realise that some of the other apprentices didn’t get the same crap I did. My male chippie and welder friends got the typical nail the lunchbox to the wall tricks but never to the point I got. But it wasn’t because of me or anything I’d done. It was because these guys were threatened, scared even, that a young girl could show up and do the job just as well.

This was especially the case when I taught 30-year-old guys how to run rigs at the ripe old age of seventeen. I had learned to operate a water well drilling rig in my work ex and school holidays. So, when the operator left but I didn’t have my truck licence yet, I got to teach the new operator how to do it. I worked with him for a couple of months, but after he got the hang of the machine, he decided to be nasty to me, and even set me up in dangerous situations.

By this point I had decided that I needed to go and work at a different company.

I stopped taking the crap personally after that. I realised it wasn’t me or my work. It’s because I was making progress, it made some of the guys uncomfortable and they didn’t know how to handle it. There are extremes of how people have treated me. I’ve had the good, the bad, and everything in between.

I thought of trying something else a few times. There were some moments where things got pretty intense and I just needed a break from drilling. Luckily, getting my truck licence was a must from the beginning so I could drive my own gear to site. It also turned out to be a handy backup for when I need that time out. I left the company I was with early last year and called up a recruitment company so see if I could get some more experience truck driving- I ended up spending 3 months driving trucks to help clear the road after the earthquakes in Kaikoura. I was reunited with the first woman I’d worked on site with and I was lucky enough to spend a few months learning the ways of an 8-wheeler from her and the guys at the trucking company. They’re all family to me now too and I’ll always stop for a quick catch up if I see one of their trucks parked up at lunchtime.

The only reason I left was because one night, as I was pulling up to the truck stop, my phone rang. It was an English bloke who was adamant I needed to run his new drilling division at Fulton Hogan. I honestly thought it was a joke because the person who referred me was someone I didn’t always get along with. Just over one year later and I’m still here, in a higher position and with more opportunities than I ever imagined possible. All because I worked my ass off to just get the work done and do it well.

The coolest part about getting to work alongside other trades is getting to see what their work involves. Learning how stuff works and seeing other people as passionate about their jobs as I am is awesome. I can guarantee that people from all trades will agree.

There have been days where everything blows up in my face, days I struggle, days, that the boss seems to want the impossible. These are the character-building days, the days that solidify our team as family, the days we learn all the things that the books can’t teach you. I’ve really developed faith in my own knowledge and abilities because they have been stretched so far. Honestly, I live for those days, because they make me appreciate the times when everything is running smoothly and without a hitch.

Two years ago, just after the NZ drilling qualifications officially came out, I applied for and won a scholarship from the NZ Drillers Federation to complete my Level 4 certificate in drilling through MITO. I’ve spent the last 2 years working on it in my down time and have just completed it. An achievement considering that I’m very much a practical learner and not one for books and study.

I’m now proud to say I am New Zealand’s first qualified female driller, but hopefully not the only one for long….