Female roughneck tells story of life on the oil field

Carla Restivo, 61, is a drilling fluids technician working in Colorado for Sugar Land-based Hydro Resources (photo via Carla Restivo)
Carla Restivo, 61, is a drilling fluids technician working in Colorado for Sugar Land-based Hydro Resources (photo via Carla Restivo)

Carla Restivo, 61, is a drilling fluids technician working in Colorado for Sugar Land-based Hydro Resources. Oil and gas drillers pump lubricating liquid — known in the industry slang as “mud” — to their drill bits to help them move through layers of rock.

Fluids technicians like Restivo help monitor and manage the type of mud that’s used in different phases of drilling process.

Restivo started her career as a roughneck in 1976. That makes her relatively unique in the oil and gas industry, where, according to the American Petroleum Institute, fewer than 5 percent of blue collar jobs are held by women.

She discussed with FuelFix her experience of frequently being the only woman on an oil rig. This transcribed interview has been condensed for clarity.

I imagine things are different today. I started roughnecking in 1976. I haven’t worked in the industry steadily, since there’s a boom-and-bust aspect to it. Probably I’ve been 20 years in the industry. It’s strictly been in the drilling end of it. Not production or exploration.

That part might be a little bit more difficult for women to get into it because it’s fieldwork primarily. It’s a tough one for a lot of women. I’m single and never had kids. I started roughnecking, working with the guys, right on the rig — hammering, throwing chain, hauling 100-pound bags of material. I have to admit, it’s not something for the vast majority of women. I’m six feet tall, pretty stout. I can handle it.

To tell you the truth, if there’s any way a woman get herself on a rig — maybe working a shift, observing and learning the drilling process — that’s where it’s at. The industry terminology, the lingo, everything stems from that.

My friends in college said I should try roughnecking. They said it kind of half-joking. I think they said it as a dare. I’ve always been outdoorsy and didn’t like being in an office, and it paid really well, so I showed up at the job site one day, and that’s how it got going.

My first supervisor was pretty cool. We’re still friends. He treated me like anybody else. On my first day, he pointed me to a shovel and told me to start digging ditches around the drill site for drainage. And that’s what I did, all day long. They tell you what to do every minute of the day. They want to see if you can take orders and are willing to work — slowly but surely you’re doing the advanced stuff.

It was a good crew to get on, but they didn’t cut me much slack. I had to prove I could stay up with the guys and do it. They said I was going to be a detriment to their safety. But I proved to them I could do the work. It was something new for them having a woman there.

The funny thing is they don’t forget you’re a woman. They want to treat you as a woman. They try to be polite and discrete.

You learn rig psychology. That’s invaluable. If a woman ever wants to get into the field and learn to get along with the guys, that’s the way to go. You learn the hierarchy, the structure, how to talk to people. You, as a woman, don’t go in there and say ‘I’m a woman and you better change this for me,’ or ‘I’m a woman and you better watch the language.’ You won’t make it.

I started off roughnecking out of college but I could see that wasn’t a career path for a woman. So I went to technical school for two or three months. I started checking mud, and that’s primarily what I’ve been doing in the industry. They call you a mud engineer, but you’re really a drilling fluids technician. Once you work on a rig and see how everything works, it’s a natural progression, and that’s the next place to go. If you have a background in roughnecking, being a fluids technician is relatively easy work.

No other women in the company have my position. There are other female mud engineers, but they’re not real common. My managers and supervisors have been supportive. Mud engineers are a hot commodity if you have experience as a roughneck.

When I first started roughnecking, there were crusty guys out there. I could tell they didn’t think I belonged out there. But they didn’t say much because they could tell I was doing a good job, and I had a good, supportive supervisor who I’m sure warned them to leave me alone.

Nobody’s been outright hostile or mean to my face, but I’ve heard some things secondhand about how I don’t belong here. It doesn’t take them long to let them know that I know what I’m doing. You go out to the rig, walk around, talk to the driller and show you know your way around a rig.

The reactions are better now. It’s kind of sad to admit, but I’m considered an old-timer. The guys who work on the rigs are very young compared to what they used to be. I’ve seen a lot of things they don’t even know. The technology has changed so much, and their job isn’t nearly as hard as when I was doing it in the 1970s.

For women entering the industry, I would recommend finding some way to get out on a rig and hang around and watch these guys — learn the lingo and the drilling process. There’s so much more to learn than what’s in the book. Watch them move the rig. See the process. Once you can appreciate that, they’ll have a lot more respect for you.

Read Sunday’s story on steps energy companies are taking to increase the number of women in their ranks.