Gender barrier still formidable in oil industry9/20/2012
Early memories of dump trucks and giant paper rolls roused a curiosity in Ginette MacIsaac that has led her to the oilsands.
The 40-year-old thermal operations superintendent for Shell Canada in Peace River, Alta., is considered a rarity. She's a woman who not only works on, but leads, projects in the maledominated oil and gas industry.
"When I was first growing up my grandfather ran a little bit of a trucking business and a garage, and so the big dump trucks were some of my earliest memories," said MacIsaac, who is from Port Hawkesbury, N.S. "I've always liked the smell of oil and gas associated with garages."
But it was a tour of the Point Tupper, N.S. pulp and paper plant, arranged by the wife of a former mill manager she met in a fitness class, that sparked a teenaged MacIsaac's interest in engineering.
"They have these paper machines, which are sort of a football field across, with these big rolls of paper and it all started with one end and it runs the length of this building where then the paper rolls come out," she said.
"When you're standing there, it's the power and the complexity of what's in front of you, and the simple sheet of paper comes out at the end. I just thought of all the different ways these things fit together and that's what really got me interested."
As part of her job with Shell in northern Alberta, MacIsaac oversees a 24hour-a-day, seven-days-aweek oil and gas operation. While she explores new drilling technologies, she also manages 40 to 50 employees, including power engineers, process operators and field workers.
At the Peace River operation, MacIsaac ensures a number of wells and well paths that feed petroleum to a nearby production plant are working properly.
"We treat the oilsands and the bitumen to pipelines spec and then we put it into the pipeline," said MacIsaac. "The oil is pretty thick so we need to inject steam to get the oil moving to actually be able to sort of flow it into the plant. And we need to keep it heated going into the pipeline." MacIsaac's workday starts at 7 a.m. and ends around 6 p.m., although the weekends often involve oncall duties.
Her career in oil and gas started after graduating with a degree in chemical engineering at the Technical University of Nova Scotia in 1995. Following graduation, she took part in a co-op program in Fort McMurray and later joined Shell in the Netherlands.
Through Shell, MacIsaac then became a chartered engineer and was sent to work in the offshore division in the North Sea for five years. Her work with Shell took her from the Netherlands to Singapore, where she helped build one of the largest Shell chemical plants in the world.
She's also lived in Qatar and Australia, before a move back to Canada.
MacIsaac, who met her husband in the Netherlands, now has a four-yearold daughter and sevenyear-old son. "Juggle is the word to use," she said.
"Even if you stay here in Canada, it's difficult to work and raise a family.
And wherever you are in the world, it just remains a challenge."
While balancing work and family is a struggle for many women, proving herself in a male-dominated industry has brought its own challenges, said MacIsaac.
One memory in particular is a teleconference with project partners in the Middle East, and the response to a woman's voice on the phone. "I spoke and there was silence on the other end of the telecom for quite some time," she said.
"With time they did accept me based on my professional credentials and the experience brought to the job, but there was that initial first telecom when I called in and obviously they hadn't been told I was a woman and it was a bit of a surprise."
She said she received another strange reaction when she was working offshore and was the only woman out of about 200 men on a drilling platform.
Determined to play sports wherever she travelled, MacIsaac said that also created some funny experiences.
"When I was in the Netherlands I did volleyball and played on the local soccer teams that they had there. When I was in Singapore - obviously, I'm quite tall for a volleyball player there - but I did anyway. I played with the boys."
MacIsaac said she's always surprised when people are surprised by her job. "I think almost if you expect to see it, you will find it," she said. "So I always sort of think that just how I accept people by the experiences and the knowledge they bring to jobs, that people will accept me the way I am."
MacIsaac is currently working on another drilling project in Carmon Creek, Alta., that is seeking environmental approval to produce 8,000 barrels per day.
(Cape Breton Post)