Nicki Turnbow has worked in the oil industry throughout West Texas for more than thirty years. She has worked as an electrician’s helper, a roustabout, a relief lease operator, and in sales for a pumping unit company. In 1990, she started her own pumping unit maintenance and repair company in Midland, which she still runs.
I went to work as an electrician’s helper at an oil field plant in Frankel City when I was nineteen, in the summer of 1974. That was when women were first breaking into men’s jobs, and the guys certainly didn’t care for it because they felt like it took away from their workforce. I was working with my electrician one day, and we shut down the power so we could unhook the electricity to the compressor. We walked farther back into the building, away from the control panel, and that’s when I was told to go ahead and start terminating the wires. I stuck the screwdriver into the terminal. We couldn’t see it from where we were, but someone had gone back over to the panel and turned the electricity on, although there was a tag saying that there were men at work on it. I got really shocked—I could feel the electricity pulling and pushing on me at the same time. I was wearing Old Smoky Retreads, shoe soles made out of tire rubber, and that grounding helped me somewhat, but I felt like I had blood running through my veins so fast the rest of the day.
The construction company let me go about ninety days later. It was a bunch of bull—there was no reason for them to fire me. I filed a grievance with the labor board, but nothing happened with it.
I worked as a radiologic technologist, an EMT, and a CPR instructor at the hospital for about seven years, but the money wasn’t nearly as good, so I went to work for a major oil company and became a roustabout around 1981. I didn’t see major sexual harassment within this company, since there were probably policies in place at that time. But that seemed to have changed when I left in 1985 to go into sales, selling pumping unit repair.
I used to meet two foremen who were customers of mine at a coffee shop at seven in the morning every Wednesday, and one day, they weren’t there. I went by their office, and one of the foremen came out of the bathroom. Next thing I know, he backed me up against the wall and wrapped his leg around my leg. Then he stuck his tongue in my ear and started working his way down my neck. I pushed him back, and I said,” I really don’t think my husband would care for that.” He said, “We don’t have to tell him.” I said, “Well, we aren’t going to tell him, because we’re not going to do this. You need to quit”. At this point, he had his hands on either side of me up against the wall. I ducked out of his arms and I said, “Is there anything I can help you with today?” He smirked and I turned around and walked out.
As a woman, you can’t put yourself in a bad position. One day, a foreman asked me to ride down with him to where they were drilling a deep gas well, about 45 miles away. I didn’t any more want to go than a man in the moon, and I should have said it, but I was thirty years old, and I didn’t know how to say that. I felt like I would be hurting my work opportunities.
He only made suggestive remarks, he never did try to touch me or anything. We saw a guy that I knew very well that was on that drill site, and I talked to him while I was down there. This man probably realized it wasn’t in his best interest to try anything with me, because I knew that guy and he had a high-up position in the company.
On our way back, he pulls down a lease road. He starts questioning me about what made me get into this type of sales and why. Then he pulled over and stopped at an abandoned location, where a well used to be—there was no reason for him to be down there. He got out, and I didn’t know what the hell he was going to do. We were down this lease road in the middle of nowhere by ourselves. He walked along this little mound of dirt and just looked off in the distance, like he was looking for something.
After that, I thought it’s best to always take your own vehicle. A friend and I, who sold for the same company, started riding together to go see these guys that were so hell-bent on messing with one of us. We would meet each other and go in together, and after that, we never were in the offices alone.
My dad, my uncle, and my papa all worked for a major oil company, but I was the first woman in my family to work in the oil fields. To be a woman working in the oil field, you gotta be a little tougher-skinned. I was a tomboy growing up, so I felt like I could handle things better and hold my own.
I’ve gained a lot of respect from people for how I handle my business. Not only did I sell this work, but I went and did this work in the field. I drove a truck, I operated winches, I tore down pumping units. I have a lot of knowledge in my field, but can’t do what I used to do as I get older, and don’t want to. I’m very knowledgeable in what I do, as well as the guys beside me. I think sometimes women have to work a little harder to get the same recognition as the men. I sure do.
To see resources about female mentorship, getting involved in local issues, and what to do if you experience sexual harassment, read here.
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