Interview with Whitney McDonald at SCHWEISSEN & SCHNEIDEN
At the SCHWEISSEN & SCHNEIDEN trade fair's Underwater Welding Competition Whitney McDonald was the only participating female. We had the opportunity to talk to her about the challenges of being a female in a male dominated field and welding under water in particular. She describes in detail the challenges navigating a physically demanding job that, at the time, was not designed to cater to women.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
I am from Washington State but moved around a little bit for work. I am the oldest of three daughters. Favor spring and autumn seasons. Love gardening. Most recently have enjoyed training our labradoodle Jack for the past few months. I started working for a commercial diving company in 2007 in Louisiana (one of their many offices). Later I moved back to Washington and California towards the end of my 8 years with the company. After getting married we relocated from San Diego to Los Angeles for 7 years, before most recently moving back to Washington for the last year.
You mentioned that you changed career paths to currently work as a massage therapist. What motivated you to make such a 180 degree turn
I was trying to figure out who I was, mostly letting go of the identity of being a welder and diver. I started taking college classes that interested me like interior design and real estate. My husband (also a commercial diver) started freelancing and settled full-time at a company in Long Beach, CA. Eventually, I started to work in the office for that company, curious to see how the industry worked in the background. It gives you a deeper perspective on the many phases of job development. I received the most influence from a project manager with a lots of marine construction diving experience, a female marine construction manager, who was a “pistol” in accomplishing her work and an amazing welding engineer that just by including me in the work he was doing, provoked the idea to think more on welding, something that I really loved. After 2 years with this company, it was in my best interest to leave and I went off to explore yet again another part of me in 2020: massage therapy, a career I had been curious about since graduating college.
Did you miss being hands-on?
A little bit. I didn’t have a strong desire to be in the field anymore, I had a stronger wish to get in the tank and help with research work. I get a lot of satisfaction from troubleshooting and enjoy the pace of patient work because I get time to think about the phases of the project coming up.
Can you go back to welding anytime?
Sure. I am grateful that it really never left my life. My husband started getting really interested in welding and he will weld in the garage, sometimes challenging me to a “weld-off” which he knows is encouraging. But I think it helps to know people if you fall out of it. Create those relationships with others when you can. I was fortunate I got to know Uwe Aschemeier (edit: Subsea Global Solutions) very well. I gave him feedback that was based on what I learned at the previous company I worked for. He appreciated my input and that kept us engaged with each other.
I talked to somebody just yesterday here at the fair who told me people in the US weld differently. Is this true? And how so
I don’t know anything about what that exactly means. But there are certainly different welding techniques and every qualified welder has their own “style” or signatur, very much individual to that of a fingerprint. Even some welding electrodes might need more or less of a certain technique applied to them. I just heard of a welding electrode that needs more of a “sawing” technique to achieve more root penetration. It was interesting. I tried it but didn’t like it during the training in the welding tank at the conference. You have to adapt to something really different than what you are used to, with some practice of course.
You were talking about the challenges of a female working in a male-dominated industry
Seeing firsthand some of the challenges and having two younger sisters who are also in male-dominated industries, I think there are always going to be challenges among co-workers. I listened to a presentation this morning about how the stereotypes alone are enough to slow down the kind of progression we would like to see in the workplace. I feel when you really want to be in the field of your choice it will work out. I feel a lot of my own challenges were “getting out of my own way" and letting go of the stereotypes I was raised with. Finding my place and where I “fit in” within the workplace and with others was the most challenging. Most of the time I felt like that kid who could sit at any table in the lunchroom at school but felt all the time that I had to pick a table.
Do you think the camaraderie you have has anything to do with the level of work?
Absolutely. That is what it feels like to me. It’s teamwork. I’ve been a strong team player and a weak one. Your relationships develop the most this way. Respect is given or not. And when you are on a team there is an expectation you give support to your team. It’s so important to build trust with each other. It’s life-supporting work being done.
You started welding first and diving later. How did that turn into underwater welding?
At a really young age, I thought it would be awesome to design houses underwater. I liked to draw up house plans and it was just fun. My dream was to be an underwater architect. It makes me laugh to reflect on where I came up with that. My mom helped guide me in the direction of commercial diving.
Are you thinking about going back to school to earn more degrees?
I’ve been thinking about the route of welding-industry-related education I would like, on and off while I’ve been a massage therapist. I have definitely thought about it much more in just this last week. Maybe massage will just be a hobby. I would certainly like to keep current on my massage license. I'm very proud to have become a massage therapist.
Is the industry so male-dominated because it is so physical?
Maybe. And maybe we can attribute that to those stereotypes “we” created so long ago within society. I think everyone has their limitations, even if you are in the best shape of your life. I also think it's important to ask for help – even if you could do “whatever the task may be” on your own. It’s important to take care of your body so that the task you perform isn’t your last.
How does quality control underwater work?
Very similar to topside work. Most of the time the diver will need certain qualifications to perform a certain task. Sometimes the diver acts as an extension to a topside qualified person, reading the data that comes back from the dive site. Like the diver operating an ultrasonic test probe for example. The diver must understand the work, sometimes being qualified himself, but it's being evaluated in real-time on the surface. Quality control in the water may be a little different, but is executed with the same importance as topside work.
How much time can you spend underwater in one session?
This really depends on the depth of the work being done. The shallower, the longer you can remain at that depth. The deeper you go the shorter the time. Breathing different gasses, such as helium can also influence a longer dive time at a particular depth, in this case, depths greater than 180 fsw (60 meters). Then there’s saturation diving, remaining at a certain depth in a controlled environment (saturation dive chamber) on the surface to do work at that depth in the water or sometimes deeper. The goal of any diving that is done to a depth where the body starts to accumulate dissolved nitrogen gas in the tissues of the body, determines the time at depth and how to safely return to the surface. Diving is always focused on off-gassing this gas out of the body, whether in the water or in a controlled environment, such as a decompression chamber that allows for a safe ascent to the “surface”. Ascents must be done very deliberately to the procedures of the diving tables, stopping in the water to allow nitrogen build-up to leave the body through the breath. If the ascent is done too quickly these gases can get “stuck” in certain areas of the body, like the joints of the body, if they bypass the circulatory system.
Other things can influence the risks of decompression sickness, like overall health, diet, and habits. The dive tables were created to omit as many risks of decompression sickness as possible and it’s so important they are followed correctly.
What do you find the most challenging about the job underwater?
Environment. You never want to fight Mother Nature. Sometimes currents and swells in the water can inhibit work or stop it altogether. Aside from that, troubleshooting the gear you are wearing until you have found the best equipment for you to do any job. For example, maybe the dive didn’t go too well due to a poor choice in dive fins… or too much or too little dive weights. That always comes with experience, and it is ever-evolving.
How would you describe your experience preparing for the competition?
This is a loaded question. I didn’t… I didn’t prepare at all. I didn’t know really what to expect, except to reflect on the past. The important stuff was shared, like a picture of the tank and the competition rules and expectations. The first day on-site at the conference during set up was just familiarizing ourselves with the tank setup and the system. We borrowed the diving harnesses and hats with the dive system. The dive harnesses were pretty bulky from what I was familiar with. They were also much bigger (another common challenge) and I would typically have worn one to my size. I dove a KM37 dive hat when I mostly ever dove and own a KM27, a smaller dive hat. Diving again felt claustrophobic, like the first day of dive school. I remember the face port being so much larger and feeling more comfortable. It was a rude awakening. My breathing was faster, but in about 5 minutes was really interesting to “see” my breathing change and slow down. Maybe only a few people will understand that, but it was super cool. The second day everything felt much better, which was a big relief. I was simply grateful to see improvement. It was like riding a bike. We had only a couple of days of a couple of hours of wet-welding practice time. I extended some more practice time on the day of the competition. All in all, I was really proud of myself for just stepping into the competition from a 6-year hiatus and placing 4th. It was a privilege to weld among very talented divers.
Read more about Whitney in Home of Welding.
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