Woman at work: building connections

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The number of women working in the offshore wind industry might not be growing in proportion to the growth of the industry itself, but there is a significant minority of women who are to be found in the engineering related jobs and actually going offshore. Offshore WIND met Annelie Doedens who is one of this minority at the head office of the Belgian Marine Heavy Lifting company, Scaldis, in Antwerp, Belgium, where she is working as Project Manager.

When we asked, Mrs Doedens smiled and denied that she had always envisioned herself working in this field of activity. With no particular career in mind other than that it should be something challenging, she initially started studying Social Geography at the University of Groningen, in the north of the Netherlands. It was the subject of Mechanics that caught her main interest amongst the others being taught. Compared to other, rather generally orientated subjects, Mechanics attracted her due to it as being tangible and relevant: Mrs Doedens: “You study to design and build constructions such as bridges and when you graduate this is exactly what you will be doing in reality.”

With this fascination growing the decision was soon made and she changed to the Higher Technical Education HTS in Groningen – and later moved to Dordrecht/Rotterdam where she studied Civil Engineering. At the beginning this study appeared rather static, looking at building bridges and tunnels, but gradually a specific interest for water related constructions developed.
While working on her graduation assignment Mrs Doedens got in contact with various Dutch companies and after graduating she started on her first job, as Project Engineer, in the Netherlands. Here she helped preparing the different projects; calculating and drawing the designs, and finally also seeing the results of the team’s work taking shape on site.

First offshore project

At this time the projects were mainly oil & gas related as the offshore wind industry was still in its infancy. Dutch engineers were at that time only in the planning phase of Q7 (now known as Prinses Amaliawindpark).

Recalling her very first real offshore project, a FPSO in Tunisia, she told us that besides being able to see her ‘office work’ put into practise and becoming a real visible end product it was also the special dynamics specific to working offshore that made her job even more interesting. Mrs Doedens: “It is a little world on its own. You are working in an intimate and enclosed environment, with people from different backgrounds and nationalities but sharing one important common factor; the necessity for a joint effort to get the job done.” Especially in those days there were fewer ways of communicating with the teams on shore so you were really relying on this group of people at sea to fix the job and look for solutions together in case of problems or necessary adaptions to be made. It is also during the execution of the project that you can find out whether all the paper work is able to become reality in the real environment.

Current position

Mrs Doedens worked on various projects for other Dutch companies, before moving to Scaldis in 2006. The activities of her current position can generally be divided in 3 phases: preparation, execution and close-out.

The first phase concerns the engineering and planning how the job will be carried out, setting up the logistics for the offshore work, making sure that all parties involved, ranging from vessel crews, surveyors, subcontractors, manufacturers, etc. , know what to do and very importantly when to do it. The main activities in this phase are organisational but with a heavy emphasis on the technical background. Communication is the key word here. Mrs Doedens: “You can have everything well calculated and organised technically but if there is a something missing in the communication lines, then the project could still have problems with obstacles and delays.”

The execution phase is when all preparations are put into practise on the construction site. Mrs Doedens: “You are like a spider in a web.” During this phase it is all about making sure that all tasks are performed correctly and advice given where and when needed. All previously made plans and preparations are coming together, and cooperation is intensified between Client, Contractor and all other involved parties to get the work done efficiently.

The last phase, the close-out phase, is all about rounding up the paper work and closing out any open ends, so everything is ready for the start of a new project.

These phases apply to any offshore project whether traditional offshore oil and gas or the more recent renewable energy projects.

Offshore wind projects

It was with her current employer that she worked on her very first offshore wind farm project; the Scottish Beatrice Windfarm Demonstrator Project. Using the heavy lift vessel Rambiz they installed the complete turbines on jacket foundations, a special experience as never before had a wind turbine been installed at such water depths and also never before on a jacket foundation. The technical challenge for this project was lifting the turbine, in one complete piece (mast, nacelle and blades as one piece). As the turbine was assembled onshore it had to be lifted using a specially designed cradle connected to the Rambiz crane at the lower part of the turbine.

Since then she has worked on a few other wind farms such as the English Ormonde Wind farm. Mrs Doedens: “Ormonde was a logistics party!” Not only was it the first time that she had worked on installing a series of jacket foundations but it was also the first time that jacket foundations had been installed at all on such scale; 31 jackets were manufactured in line and transported from North East Scotland to the Irish Sea on the west coast of the UK.

When asked whether she found any large differences between the work on oil & gas projects or offshore wind projects she has to think for a moment. She explains: “With the traditional offshore energy projects the work is drawing on a long history of experience. People know what is expected of them and you don’t have someone looking over your shoulders all the time. With the offshore wind projects you can tell that it is still a rather new industry, with new people, new ideas and developing techniques and methods.”

A woman in a men’s world

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Is it challenging being a woman in this industry dominated by men? Mrs Doedens replies that she had never experienced it as being a challenge herself. As was the case during her study time, it is actually more the fact that she is a woman that might possibly be a challenge to the men, than the other way round.

“Of course you are very aware of being the only woman or one of very few women amongst many men but as there were also many differences between men, such as religious and cultural backgrounds, in the end it is all about being capable to do your job and working in a team. If you are good at your job any differences will be overcome,” but also admitting that she does enjoy hearing about other women being successful in related positions, just to prove any possible existing prejudices wrong.

It was however during her first offshore project in Tunisia that she realised how privileged she was being able to do this kind of work as a woman when some crew members of an Egyptian vessel initially refused to talk to her. After first having queried her male colleagues they finally approached her and confided with her that they had difficulties understanding why she was doing this work and did not stay at home, to raise a family. “It made me appreciate fully that I have had the chance to make such choices myself, instead of others taking such choices for me”

Would she recommend other women to work in the offshore energy industry and/or offshore wind energy industry in general? Mrs Doedens: “There is a general shortage of experienced engineers so this needs more attention in general from involved parties such as governments, educational bodies, etc. It really doesn’t matter whether these positions are filled by men or women – as long as they are qualified and committed to the job.” She would however share the message with young women who do consider a career offshore to not let them be stopped by other people’s opinions or prejudices or by the fact that it is still an industry dominated by men.

Adding: “It is worth it! It is a dynamic and challenging world with the good combination of office work and field work. It is truly rewarding when you see the end result of all your efforts. But Mrs Doedens finds the most rewarding side of the job is that you work very closely with different people on each project. In reality it is not just about building something concrete, it is also about building connections with people!”

Sabine Lankhorst