International Special
Whitney wearing an MK5 vintage diving helmet - © Whitney McDonald
14.09.2023

Experience as a Female Working in a Male-dominated Industry

Experience of a Female Working in a Male-Dominated Industry

Whitney McDonalds from Washington state, USA, is the only female contestant in the "Underwater Welding Competition" at SCHWEISSEN & SCHNEIDEN. Her passion for welding was ignited at a very young age and she has been diligently honing her skills through various trainings and certifications. Although currently not working in the field she is excited to participate in the competition.

At the "SCHWEISSEN & SCHNEIDEN Underwater Technology Conference" she shared her story with a delighted audience:

As a little girl, my parents were truly my heroes and I had a strong desire to be like both when I grew up. I wanted to be like my mother, and remember asking her what school to attend. I wanted to be like my dad, hardworking and creating with my hands. But it was two memories I remember that started it all. Dad brought home a welding machine on two different occasions. The first time was when I was about 10 years old. It is still my absolute favorite to this day; Shielded metal Arc welding (SMAW)… or stick, but definitely wasn’t at the time. I was so interested in what he was doing, so asked if I could try. I remember not being able to see a thing once the helmet was down and trying to understand what I was supposed to do. Dad helped me out and started the spark. Wow! Once in my hands, all I was able to do was to continuously stick it, over and over. Not understanding the electrode consumption of this process, I walked away, a very uninterested child.

A couple of years would go by and not a thought of welding crossed my mind… my dad would bring home the second project; Gas Metal Arc Welding (GMAW) of wire feed. This time all that was required of me was to push a trigger. Too bad that plate wasn’t longer because I wanted to keep welding! I was so fascinated by everything that was happening in and around the arc.

Whitney at 12 years old - © Whitney McDonald
© Whitney McDonald

My mom, being the facilitator that she is, signed me up for “farm shop” in my freshman year where I learned some basics in welding and woodworking. My teacher provided a wonderful foundation and enough information to keep me interested. She taught us oxyacetylene welding and what to expect when welding with low hydrogen (SMAW) rods like E7018 when they weren’t properly stored in electrode ovens or hermetically sealed. Experiencing these low-quality rods still made me continue falling in love with welding and I had an appreciation for seeing discontinuities early on. Later, I entered into a 2-year trade program through high school that focused on welding skills and building these practical fundamentals while studying welding textbooks. The program, and the teacher who taught this program, set my course to stick with welding and see where it would take me. After graduation, I attended a 2-year degree college program and learned the many different paths a welding career could offer all while increasing my welding skills.

I volunteered my time for a gentleman I met in a welding store. It turned out that he was looking for some help welding up portions of a dragster chassis using the TIG welding process that were the “hard to reach areas”.

First diving days at school - © Whitney McDonald
© Whitney McDonald

I even explored how to weld with a mirror because I just could see – which he replied to my dad as they watched, “Girls are better at welding with a mirror because they are using one every day to do their hair and makeup.” It was endearing, coming from a man born in the late 1930s. We remain very good friends and I couldn’t have asked for a kinder, to-the-point teacher, a grandfather-like figure to have in my life.

While completing my Associate’s in Welding, I also entered into a work-study program to assist a welding engineer professor with small research projects after class, making and polishing cross-section molds of different metal materials for viewing and evaluating under a scanning electron microscope (SEM) the most influential educational experience by far and become aware of this unseen world and study of metallurgy. This inspired my interest further towards Non-destructive Evaluation/Testing (NDE or NDT). I will never forget my metallurgy professor and his passion for teaching and sharing his knowledge with me.

Within these pivotal seven years of focus on welding that happened before entering Dive school, what I learned at that point, about being a female with so many males around, is remembering everyone stating the obvious. It was often applauded, and I had a hard time understanding what was the big deal. I was just doing something that interested me and that I was passionate about. I remember every one of them mentioning, at least once, they were glad women were becoming more prevalent in the industry and then they would follow up with some words of wisdom about being one of few.

Early career

I was hired by a commercial diving company whose primary work was as a subcontractor for the Navy’s liaison NAVSEA. They also had a steady growth of commercial offshore work. I was fortunate that the Welding Manager at the time was progressive and brought an experienced passion for welding when I asked him questions. I was able to test out on my first WPQ (welder performance qualification) with the company and later learned some employees didn’t get the opportunity. I didn’t know if it was the company that wanted to test my skill that I said I had or if those employees lacked the training to be ready to test. But it seemed there was a disgruntled scent in the air about the changes that were upon the company and some unhappy souls that were passed up on the welding path. One guy was upset because he had to take a (company-wide) sexual harassment training for, what sounded like the first time, and it was “my” fault, he would say. Change is hard and in this fellow’s case, I was walking on his stomping grounds and his playground was no longer safe. It would take nearly 4 years for him to finally have a real conversation with me which led to him apologizing for not talking with me sooner because he was afraid I could take him to human resource or more commonly known as “HR”. I was learning several boundaries early on that I wasn’t prepared for. I was ready to be “one of the guys” or a sister-like figure to the ones I looked up to, but even those relationships didn’t get to deepen the way I imagined. [...]

There has been a common theme in this article if you haven’t noticed already; teachers and teaching have been a deeply inspiring factor in my life. There has been a grave gap in the workforce, specifically welding and the new generations are upon us ever changing in mind and attitude, why not coach the up-and-coming to be the best reflection of what you want the current times to reflect, accepting both men or women to hone these skills you’ve created and that were shared with you. [...]

First offshore job - © Whitney McDonald
© Whitney McDonald

I enjoyed working with guys who dove in suits to hundreds of feet of water without decompression and learning what it could take, they were a tight crew. In all the jobs I attended that required mobilization of gear to be placed on deck, 80 % of the time I was a welder on deck. I never really got to always be a part of setting up the deck but I knew where most of it went, which was sometimes a magical game of Tetris. I can’t begin to stress how useful this was and because of this skill, it was a shining feature to have as me, a woman. But, even knowing these skills like welding and cutting come with boundaries and when you are not in charge and someone doesn’t agree with your concerns, things can go wrong. My safety was at stake when I was thrown some 20 feet (6 m) across the deck by a pipe, holding stored energy after trying to explain to the foreman on deck to “fatigue the hanger on the cut pipe with the crane” so I could step aside as we separated the sections onto the deck. And everyone thought they knew better and soon against my better judgment everyone saw me fly through the sky with apologies to follow. As jobs came and went, I was learning how to hold my own. I started to accept what I was good at in the field like welding and inspection and was not offended if the dive rotation shifted because someone else was better at jetting (I wasn’t good at it). I learned the importance of “time is money”.

Playing in the diving tank - © Whitney McDonald
© Whitney McDonald
Second Family and the Jobs we were on

I had a pretty good streak of jobs for the first few years working with amazing crew both on government and commercial jobs, lots of wet welding training, welding certs and camaraderie. When an opportunity came up to assist one of my favorite supervisors working on a welding procedure to support underwater repair on aluminium ships, there was no question that I wanted to be of service to someone starting a project like this, something that carried longevity such as Research & Development (R&D) in the shop. He’d accepted the position of welding manager after the previous had left a few years prior, which helped reign in the importance of building a welding department, and I needed some stability. Those were some of the best memories and troubleshooting challenges I will never forget. I learned so much about myself and what it looked like to stand up for myself, and what I enjoyed doing most, welding and creating.

In the beginning of the R&D Aluminium procedure work, I was given a fair amount of guidance to troubleshoot on my own while the welding manager worked on the finer details of the documentation. We used Lincoln Electric as our main vendor for equipment and consumables and received amazing tech support along the way. They even shot a little video some months after beginning R&D in the shop, that had excluded me from the interview in which the Welding Manager fought for me to stay in the interviews (not everyone can master public speaking in 10 min). It was important to him to include me since I assisted him from the beginning of the aluminum welding R&D and procedure qualifications. I am at least grateful for his efforts to protect those he saw value in, woman or other. If my memory serves me correctly I think he was one of the most opposed to the company hiring women for the first time. I think the term used is “sea-daddy” as some divers saw it and he will never forget (as he had told me a few times fondly) the first time I jumped from the pier on my first Navy job for some in-water tending and gleefully said “weee” on the way down. [...]

Closing

The short 10 years staying in the industry was just the tip of the iceberg. And it was. It’s not an easy career choice for anyone. Blood, sweat, and tears are guaranteed no matter how tough you are. My hope is that co-workers can become closer and support their fellow mates. Everyone goes through stuff and it helps to take your emotions out on the hard work you put into it, and unfortunately others. Most of us just want someone to listen to our experiences. [...]

Knowing what I know now, I would ask for a do-over and take the same path I took in becoming a commercial diver and ultimately a Welder/Diver. That was the dream. I knew only a fraction of what to expect and even that was more than I should have. My experiences made me who I am today, but it was a lot of growing up at light speed. If I reentered the industry, it would be with a shifted perspective, seeing myself as a more confident, secure individual. A lot of the memories I've focused on, after leaving diving, were the ones when I acted in survival mode with my sympathetic nervous system in full swing, sometimes viewing myself from outside myself.

There are patterns in the industry, common behaviors that are easy to fall into when others don't know how to demonstrate leadership. The way I showed up was the best I did, and the way others viewed me at times, well, I can only ask for forgiveness for not always being accountable for my behavior. I've been called a lot of names. Some endearing, some crude and joking and downright mean (even when it wasn't meant to be) some stick in the brain forever, and hopefully with a playfulness. The best advice for a name not to "stick" is to simply ignore it. It works because bullies don't want to play if there’s no engagement. And what those names were doesn't matter anymore nor is it none of anyone's business because that's not the point, although if you must know my favorite name to be called was my own and I did my best to always give back this gold that everyone deserves to hear. What's important here is that these experiences were the relationships I made in that process and ones I'll never forget, and I implore any woman or man to tell their story because the strongest growth is growing together.

(Whitney McDonald, Washington, USA)

Schlagworte

CompetitionSCHWEISSEN & SCHNEIDEN 2023Underwater Welding

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