When she was just 16 years old, a scooter accident left Patricia (Pat) Thomson unconscious for 3 days. As a result, Pat has no memory of her childhood in Scotland though she thinks she must have been a bit of an adventurous tomboy.
Pat’s proud of the fact that the motorbike incident did not weaken her daring side. When we recently spoke with her, she recalled regularly “having a lift on one of the lad’s motorbikes. The more powerful, the better,” she reminisced.
Pat’s love of adventure would help prepare her for a path into a world few women had ventured before. In 1983, then 49-year-old Pat walked onto a North Sea BP rig, becoming one of the first ever female workers to work offshore.
So began an amazing and unique O&G career path seldom seen for someone of Pat’s gender and age. Pat has a rare boldness that allowed her to break down barriers. She admits she was not always a welcome sight on the rig, as she broke up the “boys only” club. But she decided early on to become like “one of the guys”- an essential instinct for a woman surviving and navigating this new terrain.
At a spry 74 years young today, Pat is an inspirational woman full of life, character, and adventure. During our phone conversation with her to get background for this post, we quickly came to the realization that Pat is a real life oilfield legend. This is her story.
Offshore Queen: The Early Days
Defying the offshore odds with her fragile frame and standing only 5’3”, Pat says she’s not sure if she was always fond of the sciences as a child, but knows that she wasn’t musical, athletic or artistic. Pat says if she was doodling as a child, she doodled number puzzles rather than pictures. In school, Pat studied chemistry and physics. “I suppose I must have had a scientific mind as I thoroughly enjoyed it,” Pat says.
When she was finishing high school, Pat knew she didn’t want to go to University, but instead yearned for real world experience. Knowing her parents wouldn’t allow her to leave school without a job, Pat inquired about an opportunity after learning of the opening from a boy who had come to school bragging that he’d just landed a job at a distillers company. Curious and determined, Pat phoned up the company to ask if they had any vacancies. She was asked to come in for an interview and soon found out the boy in her class hadn’t landed the job at all, only the interview for the job- same as her.
Pat went on to interview for the position beating out her male counterpart for the sought after position. “It turned out that he didn’t get the job, but I did,” Pat chuckled. “I felt slightly bad, only slightly. He shouldn’t have gone around boasting that he had got it when he only had the interview.”
At the age of 19 however, Pat left her hard earned job to start another adventurous chapter of her life, giving birth to the first of her three children. Pat raised her son and two daughters at home until they reached the age of 5 at which point Pat’s fervor for excitement set in again. Pat began attending night school so as to obtain more qualifications for which she could apply to University with the hopes of becoming a primary school teacher.
It was 1972 when Pat’s University life ended and her teaching career began. Pat taught 9 year old children during her four years as a primary school teacher. Though she enjoyed what she did, Pat soon began to feel she wasn’t doing the best for the children saying, “I’m not artistic, I can’t draw, I’m not musical, I’m tone deaf, I’m not athletic. I had 9 year olds…so I felt that really I wasn’t doing the best for the children because I couldn’t encourage their non-academic talents, I was not good at that.”
Pat may not have been able to nurture the children as she saw fit, but like the resiliency learned from the motorbike accident early on in her life, Pat would realize how this experience was helping to mold her for a later calling. Pat now admits that her role as a primary school teacher turned out to be the handiest qualification for her soon to be discovered offshore life saying- with a tongue and cheek tone to her voice, that she often dealt with the men offshore as she had the children in her previous career.
Her concern for the well being of her children at school as well as that ever present need for adventure motivated Pat to go inquiring of the oil and gas companies just arriving in Aberdeen.
“I’m looking for a job, have you got one?”, Pat asked several of the O&G personnel officers. Once again Pat’s persistence paid off, eventually being offered a job with Brown and Root, though not right away. When Pat was first informed of her potential salary she replied, “You know, I was thinking about coming out of teaching, but I really don’t think it’s worth it for that amount.”
Pat’s resolve resulted in her being asked to go back outside for a while longer as her offer was discussed more. Upon this second discussion, Pat says the subsequent offer was higher so she accepted the job- bringing her one step closer to the industry that would hold the attention of Pat’s thrill seeking side to this day.
Stepping Into Offshore Life
After working in the Brown & Root offices onshore for awhile, it was suggested Pat needed some field experience. She was offered work in costs and planning on a BP project that was building one of the first platforms in the North Sea. During these years with BP Pat made mainly day trips to rigs for end of well inventories and training of storemen.
Then in 1990, after taking redundancy from BP, Pat says she was lucky enough to obtain an offshore position as a consultant for Phillips Petroleum- the start of her 3 to 4 week rotations.
Pat recalls that first day of her now three decade long offshore career very clearly:
“It was a Friday and we landed on the rig…I was so excited about it until it came to night, and, you know, there were no other females on the rig. I went outside onto the rig floor and I realized that there was absolutely nothing I could see from any side of the rig, it was dark, I thought you’d see land from somewhere but of course you couldn’t see any light and it was very eerie. I think I was quite nervous then and I was in a bit of a panic…I felt very remote and I think if a helicopter had landed on the rig the next day I’d have gone. But it was Friday and unless you’ve got a real emergency…There was no helicopter planned till Monday. By Monday I had given myself a talking to and said this is ridiculous,” Pat recalls of that first two week stint she spent working offshore.
Pat says at the time, the work seemed strange. She recalls thinking that she was being silly, telling herself that even if she changed to a different job and wasn’t offshore, she would still find it peculiar to begin with, just as she was finding offshore life now.
It took Pat just 3 days to talk herself into staying on that first BP rig despite being the only female onboard- a minority position that has definitely come with its fair share of challenges.
“There’s such discrimination against females offshore and expectations as well,” Pat says recalling a time during her career when she was walking down a corridor on a rig as a man stopped her to inform her there were no towels left in his cabin. “In other words they presume that you’re catering staff,” Pat laughs. Pat says she often used sarcasm to handle these kind of situations offshore and replied, “Oh really? I don’t think I’ve got any either.”
Pat says it was always common for the men onboard to presume she worked on the kitchen or cleaning crew. Pat didn’t allow these stereotypes to get to her however, but more so had an expectation they would happen given the environment of her work.
“I had to appreciate I was going into a new environment. And I know it was renowned, the offshore industry, for being a bit rough and rowdy so you know I couldn’t expect special favors, and I didn’t,” Pat says.
Admitting she was never remotely rough and rowdy, Pat says somehow she always managed to maintain her femininity including the wiles that these traits entail. Pat says she was known as being stern; no-nonsense when needed but fair; and full of fun on occasions.
Though she’s fashion conscious when not at work, it may be Pat’s “one of the guys” attitude while at work that has lead to her success offshore as well as earning the respect of the lads on board. “They were always very respectful, I think if anyone had said anything against me, the whole rig would have been up in arms. They could be cheeky, but if I walked into a room and they were using bad language they would go bright red and they’d apologize,” Pat says.
Pat’s work offshore has taken her all over the world to places like the North Sea, Scotland, England, Guinea, The Falklands, Poland, Amsterdam, and Gabon.
Working in different parts of the world means encountering different cultures, some of which the men are not accustomed to taking orders from their female counterparts.
Pat recalls a time in Gabon during her last assignment when some of the men working under her were of this mindset, selectively understanding English when Pat gave orders. Pat said when things like this happened she always tried to handle it very diplomatically, if not sarcastically, and would respond asking if they wanted their paycheck on Friday. She says suddenly they understood perfectly.
Pat says, “I think I was reasonably capable of quipping with them. But I got a lot of respect and I had a lot of fun. They knew how far they could go. I had an American boy who said to one of the service people, “You better have your people in order by such and such time today, cause if you haven’t I’m gonna set Ms. Pat on you and believe you me, you’ll be sorry then. She’s got the tenacity of a Doberman.”
Professionally, Pat has always been persistent, working hard to be accepted in a male dominated offshore environment. Pat says initially while working at BP, she was passed over for promotions in favor of her male colleagues. Upset yet unwavering, Pat recognized an opportunity to overcome this obstacle when she saw a promotion advertised internally asking for a candidate “preferably with or studying for a business studies degree.”
Fairly certain none of the men had this qualification, Pat did a little research and found a home study course offering this three year degree. After successfully passing the first year, Pat applied for her dream post and says she “magically obtained the promotion.” Pat went on to complete the course and graduate before then starting her BSC degree in maths and engineering. One of the many trials Pat overcame to ensure her place offshore in a job she loved.
Pat says working in a mainly male environment most of her life taught her to stand up for herself. “Really because it’s been difficult, it’s been a fight always,” she says. Pat recalls a particular moment from earlier on in her career, one of many that has helped her develop the tenacity to overcome the numerous challenges presented her as a female in a male dominated industry:
“When I was working for BP in the offices I was doing a university degree…I was a buyer for them and I remember an instance where one of the engineers came down with these requests to purchase for them, and my math project was on the desk. He said, “Who’s is this?” and I said, “Mine”. He said, “Yeah, okay.” He obviously didn’t believe me so I got my briefcase out and showed him my assignments. After a minute he looked at me and said, “Well, you really surprised me. I didn’t think a woman could understand maths.” With a BSC in maths and engineering, Pat certainly does understand.
Being one of the rare females of her time to be working offshore in the oil and gas industry meant that Pat had to figure things out on her own. She said she never really had a mentor. Pat explains that she was going into a situation where there was only the drilling supervisor in the office and herself, now the logistics/materials superintendent.
“Your drilling supervisor is too busy worrying about what’s happening— whether the well’s going to cause a blowout…so nobody really has time to show you anything. Really it was a case of being independent and teaching yourself,” says Pat.
Despite Pat’s tenacity and zest for adventure, she admits there’s one thing about her job offshore that terrifies her saying, “If I go into a bath and water splashes into my face, I’m panicking. And we do these underwater helicopter escape trainings, they’re horrific.”
Underwater Helicopter Escape Training
“I kept thinking that I’m terrified, I don’t want to do it. I dreaded it, but if I didn’t do it, I haven’t got the job I love and I absolutely loved the job so it’s a trade off,” Pat says of the terrifying training.
Required to take the training every 4 years, Pat last completed the training in 2012 at the age of 70. Pat remembers not being able to sleep for nights leading up to the training. “I phoned my youngest daughter in the morning and said we’ve done the firefighting, we’re just about to go into the pool in the afternoon. If I haven’t called you by half past four, I’m dead and I’ll tell you where the will is hidden,” Pat laughs remembering the frightful exercise.
Today, Pat is 74 and says if an opportunity to go offshore arose she’d take it. “The children all think I’m completely mad,” she jokes. And if the downturn in oil prices hadn’t happened, Pat says she’d be doing the underwater escape training again in April.
Offshore Life Has Its Perks
Based in the UK now, Pat recently visited Texas and says it was good meeting like minded females in the industry. “Normally when I would go to things, quite often I was the only woman. When I was a Senior Engineering Buyer for BP I used to get invited to all these concerts and invited out to lunch because I was the only female buyer in the city,” Pat says. “It was lovely to see what a good job all the females are doing over there.”
Though there has been an increase of females working in the industry overall, Pat says she hasn’t seen a noticeable increase in females offshore since she first began her career. Pat credits this stagnant growth of females offshore to lack of knowledge and lack of seeing the possibilities saying, “I don’t think the ladies are really shown the benefits or the possibilities… They don’t see the fun side, they just see lots of dirty men having a hard time in the environment offshore and you get men that say, ‘When I was going offshore you’d never stand it, a day trip is jolly but you’d never stand two weeks of it.'”
Even with a family at home, Pat says working offshore has provided her a great life with a great quality family life as well. Pat likes the offshore way of life because when you’re at work, you’re at work; and when you’re home, you’re home. Pat prefers to not deal with traffic, but instead to drive to the helipad every couple of weeks. She says when you’re home, you get to focus solely on your family and jokes that you can even lie in bed till lunchtime if you wanted to.
“The food is terrible sometimes,” says Pat discussing the benefits of offshore life. “But if it’s getting bought for me, cooked for me and the dishes done for me, I’ll eat anything.”
Pat retired in 2013 at the age of 71 due to a cancer scare saying she was continually called with job offers during her pre and post op months. By the time Pat recovered, however, the industry downturn had begun and Pat says she’s been “unlucky enough to gain another contact.”
When asked if she would do it the same if given the chance to do it all over again, Pat laughs and replies, “Yes, but probably earlier.”