The Secret Sisterhood of Offshore Oil Workers

Living on a remote oil platform 60 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico is no easy assignment. Now imagine being one of the first women to ever step on board.

The Secret Sisterhood of Offshore Oil Workers

María de Jesús Ramos Cárdenas didn’t know what she was doing when she arrived at the helicopter pad in Ciudad del Carmen, an island city along Mexico’s gulf coast, in September 1988.

She didn’t know much about the offshore oil industry. But she was tired of using her medical degree only haphazardly — giving consults when and where she could, often door-to-door, while also cooking food, sewing clothes, cutting hair, and painting nails in between to pay the bills. Things had been better during the past few months; she was thrilled to have finally gotten a chance to put her degree to use more regularly, working on the island at a hospital run by Pemex, Mexico’s national oil company.

The refrain that Ramos repeated to her supervisors, and indeed the reason she was hired, was “send me wherever you need me.” And now, they had taken her up on it. She was being sent to an oil barge about 60 miles offshore, where she would take over for a doctor who had fallen ill. “I didn’t even know what an oil barge was,” she remembers. “I had never been on a helicopter.”

Ramos arrived at the heliport at around 5 a.m. that September morning, dressed in a blouse, pants and tennis shoes. She looked around. She was the only woman in sight, and all eyes were on her. Ramos, then 33 years old, had never flown before, but when she was told to board, she walked toward the small helicopter, she says, “as if I were an expert at flying.” She watched the pilot pull on a life vest, and she did the same. Then she watched the way he secured his seatbelt, and again she mimicked his movements. As the helicopter lifted, Ramos felt the air carry them away, watching one world disappear below her and another one come into view, a world of giant metal structures that towered out of the ocean, each a little city of its own, pulling petroleum from the waters below. “Where am I?” she thought. “What am I doing?”

Helicopter view of an oil rig platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

At the time, she didn’t know that the small world forming below her would become her whole world. She didn’t know that it was where she would meet her life partner, where they would conceive their daughter, where she would pass most of her pregnancy. She didn’t know that that world in the middle of the ocean would be what kept her family alive after her partner got in an accident that would leave him with quadriplegia. She didn’t know that her co-workers would try to steal her underwear and spy on her through the ceiling panels as she showered. She couldn’t have imagined that she would use those experiences to form a community to protect her fellow female colleagues. 

That would all come later. For now, the helicopter arrived at the barge, battling strong winds, and Ramos started the first week of what would become 31 years of work offshore. 

Women like Ramos, who work on offshore oil platforms in Mexico, represent a small but growing minority who make their careers in spaces built for and dominated by men. 

Most often, they divide their lives into two-week cycles: 14 days working offshore, 14 days of rest. These women spend their lives balancing precariousness and resilience: the precariousness of fighting to keep one’s family together, of working in spaces meant to isolate you; the resilience of adjusting, thriving, both despite obstacles and because of them.

There is a phrase that unifies the women who work offshore, one they repeat when you ask them about their experiences. “Te acostumbras,” they say. 

“You get used to it,” we could say in English. But the translation seems imperfect, almost ugly. “To get” in English is to obtain, to receive, to gain possession of — to get a cold, to get lucky, to get drinks — and it projects a sort of passiveness on the part of the getter. And these women are not passive. The process of acostumbrándose was not given to them, it was something they fought for. Something they fight for. Most every day. 

María de Jesús Ramos Cárdenas with her coworkers on a platform, 1989.

For 20 years, Ramos was the only woman consistently on the platform where she worked. Harassment and discrimination were deeply ingrained in her professional life, the effects leaking over into her personal life. 

For decades, Ramos followed a ritual to shower: Lay her clothes out on the bed, turn off all the lights, bathe and redress in complete darkness. Warned that a man had climbed into the drop ceiling to spy on the female doctor before her, Ramos checked the panels of her cabin every day, making sure they were all intact. One day, she noticed a gap in the paneling that hadn’t been there before. Furious, she found a small welding rod, and with it in hand, she marched into the office of the platform superintendent. “I just came to let you know, to warn you,” she said. “I see an eye spying on me, and I’ll bring you this rod with that eyeball on it, and I’ll leave him one-eyed, because I’m not the spectacle of any bastard.”

Today, a platform worker is identified by her uniform, an orange or yellow or red jumpsuit, depending on the company. But back when she was pregnant in the early 1990s, Ramos wore loose blouses, often ones she sewed herself, the kind of clothes that made it easy to hide her pregnancy from helicopter pilots who might have been concerned about the risks of her flying offshore — that is, until one day, seven and a half months in. As she was boarding the helicopter, the gusts of air made her blouse cling to her round stomach, catching the pilot’s eye. “Are you pregnant?” he asked. Barred from boarding the helicopter, Ramos was sent to the hospital.

Ramos on the offshore platform where she works, while six months pregnant, 1992.

Her supervisor was angry; he asked Ramos why she had gotten pregnant. He told her this was why he didn’t want women offshore, she remembers. “What happened is you don’t want to work,” he said. 

“I’m not sick,” she remembers replying. “I’m pregnant.”

Ramos passed the rest of her pregnancy onshore. When she went back to work six weeks after giving birth, Ramos left her daughter with her sister, crying all the while as she returned to Carmen, pumping milk and dumping it. 

Harassment and discrimination have been deeply engrained in Ramos’s professional life, but they do not define it. 

What defines her professional life are the patients she has gotten to know by name, whom she shared meals with and whose children’s birthdays she remembered, whose problems she listened to and understood and sometimes even solved. For her patients, Ramos likes to say, she was not just their doctor but also their kids’ pediatrician, their wives’ gynecologist, their parents’ geriatrician, their therapist, their sex counselor, their shoulder to cry on. 

What defines Ramos’s professional life, she says, are the marriages she saved. Her work, and the trust she cultivated with her patients through it, had few boundaries, temporal or emotional. 

“Doctor, I’m very desperate,” Ramos remembers a man saying as he sat next to her in a common room, interrupting the television in the background. “I want to get divorced — I think my wife is cheating on me.” 

The man told Ramos that his wife had frequent and recurring vaginal infections, proof, he was convinced, of her unfaithfulness, despite her swearing against it. “Is your wife diabetic?” Ramos asked. She explained that women with diabetes, like his wife, were at a higher risk of those infections, and she advised him to go with his wife to her next gynecologist appointment, to see if the root of their problems was medical, not infidelity. He did, and a few weeks later returned with good news. “You saved me from divorce,” he told Ramos. 

She has thousands of stories like that, she says. 

Ramos in her offshore consult room, 1990.

Ramos is from Tampico, Tamaulipas, one of the many cities along the Gulf of Mexico whose history and economy have been sculpted by the oil industry. She’s self-assured, loud, with a smile that’s remained the same over the past 30 years — and the soft creases around her eyes to prove it. She sends me photos from her early days offshore. In one, she’s sitting on the table in her consult room, legs crossed, short heels, perfect lipstick, hand behind her head, which is thrown back in laughter, in “diva mode,” she says. She calls herself “irreverent” and doesn’t mince words — “without hair on the tongue,” she explains in Spanish.

At its core, Ramos’s work wasn’t about breaking boundaries for women offshore; it wasn’t about rocking the literal or figurative boat. Her work was about feeding her family and getting to practice the degree she had worked so hard to earn. But over the 31 years she spent in the ocean, she and the women around her formed an informal network, seeing each other in ways that others refused to.

As the years passed, more women began to accompany Ramos in the helicopters and on the boats and platforms. Hundreds of photos from over the years document the end of the era when she could wear dresses and short heels on board, replaced by a signature pink helmet and a bright yellow jumpsuit, the flag of Mexico emblazoned on its sleeve. 

And as more women have begun to build lives offshore, more effort has gone into ensuring that they are met with an environment of respect, or in the absence of one, with a channel through which to be heard. Pemex, for example, has worked with the U.N. Development Program and the World Economic Forum to establish strategies to promote workplace inclusion and combat harassment, recognizing the well-established business case for diversity. 

Ramos speaking about gender parity and the role of medical professionals in the offshore industry, as part of a video conference, 2012.

Ramos remembers noting this change around 2010. By 2012, she was asked to represent her female co-workers on a national videoconference about gender parity. In a room overflowing with men, Ramos stood, gripped a microphone, and spoke about “how women, little by little, we were … entering this world of men of steel, becoming women of steel on our islands of iron and salt,” she says. 

One of the women to join Ramos’s ranks was Claudia (who did not want to be identified by her last name for confidentiality reasons), a fellow doctor who’s worked on platforms for 16 years. Ramos and Claudia met at the heliport between turns offshore, and they began swapping stories, grabbing meals together. When Ramos let go of her house in Carmen, Claudia offered up her apartment. “Just ask the neighbor for the keys,” she said. 

Claudia is a warm, bright single mother whose no-nonsense attitude blends with an immutable kindness. She is the sort of doctor who, upon realizing that many of her patients offshore were injured, overweight, unaccustomed to exercising, and not well served by the weight room and track on the platform, trained to become a yoga instructor and began giving classes in her free time. Her offshore story began thanks to the help of other women, and she’s committed to returning the favor.

The first time Claudia went to work offshore was in 2004. She quickly fell in love with the work. “I said, ‘This is where I’m from,’” she remembers. “I liked seeing myself in overalls, you know? I felt powerful.”

Her first stint offshore, Claudia met another woman, who worked in administration, and they quickly became friends. During that time, Claudia didn’t have a fixed contract, so she had to stay in Carmen between shifts. That would normally mean paying for a hotel, taxis to get around, and food, all out of her own pocket. But luckily, Claudia’s newfound friend opened the doors to her home. “She told me, ‘You know what, stay here, you’re not going to pay me anything. I understand your situation: You’re new, you have a 5-year-old daughter, you don’t have a lot of money, you came here almost with nothing,” Claudia remembers being told. “‘Today I do it for you,’ she said, ‘tomorrow you’ll do it for another woman.’”

Claudia got a fixed contract a few months later. At the time, she expected she would continue the work offshore for two years, just long enough to make sufficient money to buy a house and a new car and put a bit in savings. 

But the two parts of the life she was building — half in the middle of the ocean and half on land — quickly became intertwined, locked into each other in a way that, when she steps back to look, Claudia describes as beautiful. Her daughter, Andrea, 5 when Claudia first started in the industry, is now in college. 

The hardest part of the work for Claudia has always been the distance from Andrea. She is grateful for the ability to use technology to fill the absence as best she can. Cell phones are generally prohibited offshore (Pemex doesn’t want them to turn into a distraction or a public relations crisis), leaving many workers disconnected from their families for long stretches of time. But Claudia, because of her rank, has the benefit of being able to use Skype on her work computer.

When Andrea was young, the two used Skype to do homework, with Claudia in her consult room. They would be deep in conversation when suddenly a patient would interrupt. 

“Don’t make any noise. I’m not going to hang up on you, but don’t make any noise,” Claudia would quickly tell Andrea. Following instructions, Andrea would listen quietly as her mother helped the patient. When the patient left, they would return to the homework, impossibly far away and yet each day growing closer. 

Before she began working offshore, Claudia worked mornings in a hospital, where she made about 100 pesos a day (approximately $10 at the time), which she supplemented with afternoon shifts in a pharmacy. When she was offered a job working on a platform, she was in the process of separating from her husband. 

“Claudia, for God’s sake, you never follow through with anything and you can’t see past your own nose,” her ex-husband said when she told him about the opportunity. 

His doubt made the decision for her. She gathered her documents and went to Ciudad del Carmen. 

While Ramos and Claudia benefit from their rank in the hierarchy offshore, with all of the respect and privilege it conveys, women who occupy lower-ranking roles — waitresses, cooks, maintenance and security staff, among many others — often live different realities. 

Their realities begin to diverge as they depart land, with women of higher rank typically receiving a helicopter ticket, while the rest of the women are left to board crowded and slow-moving boats. Once they reach the platform, these women are more likely to share bathrooms and bedrooms with men and be on the receiving end of verbal and physical harassment. Though systematic indifference and bureaucratic inertia work against these women, their female colleagues work in their favor. 

Maria del Carmen Simbrón García is an engineer who has worked offshore for eight years. Her rank makes her an undeserving target of many resentful men — “A woman isn’t going to come order me around, much less a girl,” Simbrón, now 35, has often been told — as well as a much-needed advocate for many of her female co-workers.

Simbrón remembers sitting in the dining room one day as the waitstaff made rounds, asking workers whether they’d like water or soda. “You can’t tell me I can’t drink soda!” a man yelled at a waitress. Simbrón stood up from her table, walked over to the man.

“Hold on, she just asked you,” Simbrón remembers telling the man. “You don’t have any reason to get like that. You feel bad, maybe today wasn’t your day … ” 

“She’s a woman, and she should obey me,” the man interrupted. 

Simbrón looked down at the man. “Here, we’re all equal. But if I don’t yell,” she said, making reference to her rank, “nobody has a reason to be yelling.”

It didn’t take long for Georgia Sarai Sóstenes Chablé to learn that women’s work offshore is often valued less than the work of their male counterparts. It’s a reality that is physically sketched out on the platforms, which often don’t include bathrooms for women. “That’s where it starts,” she says. 

On platforms where there isn’t a separate bathroom for women, many times doctors, administrators and engineers will use their rank to lobby the superintendent to designate one of the general bathrooms specifically for women, says Sara Eugenia Castillo Bolaños, a doctor with 18 years of experience offshore.

The women who work on platforms without female-designated bathrooms share experiences of discomfort, of recruiting co-workers to stand watch at shower doors, of harassment. One morning, after Sóstenes caught a man trying to watch her as she showered, it was she who initially felt guilty — it was her fault for showering so early, right after her 4:30 a.m. workout, when few other people were around, she thought. “I felt ashamed,” she says. “How many times had it happened and I hadn’t realized?” Later, the man came to her cabin and asked her not to report him. He had daughters, he said, and he needed the work.

Sóstenes spent two days thinking about the incident, and ultimately decided to report it, knowing that she couldn’t live with the idea of the same thing happening to another woman. “The silence was tormenting me,” she says. “I didn’t know how many times it had happened and I hadn’t realized.”

When she describes her experiences on platforms though, Sóstenes does so with honest eagerness and positivity. That outlook, in many ways, is a survival tactic for women offshore. 

Ramos, center right, with Maria del Carmen Simbrón García, center left, and other co-workers celebrating Ramos’s retirement on August 26, 2019.

Sóstenes remembers once walking on a platform with a heavy backpack. When she fell on the hard metal, the only thing she could think about was getting up as fast as she could, “because I didn’t want anyone to see that a woman had fallen down.” The memory has a symbolic meaning, one that Sóstenes carries with her. “You fall and you get up,” she says.

When we spoke in January, Sóstenes and her husband, who also works offshore, had spent three months working opposite shifts; the day he left to work offshore, she came home. Sometimes they passed each other at docks or heliports, one headed to a platform, one arriving home to their children and notes left of things undone.

Leaving behind her three children is painful for Sóstenes because, as the daughter of an oil worker, she knows all too well the pain of a parent’s habitual, clockwork-like absence. Still, she feels proud of being able to model hard work and independence for her daughters — a feeling shared by many women who work offshore. 

Ramos holds onto a memory of talking to her then-6-year-old daughter, who told Ramos that at her school, there were many children whose fathers worked offshore. At first, her daughter was sad because both of her parents left to work, Ramos remembers, “but then she saw the ‘good’ side, and she said, ‘Well, the truth is, I’m the only girl whose mom is the heroine that works offshore.’”

Though women carry with them the pain of leaving their homes on land, a platform is also “a home where we all live together,” Ramos says. 

It is a home, of course, because it is where these women spend half of their lives. But it is also a home because they make it one. Often, they say “my platform” rather than “the platform,” using the possessive because it is a place that possesses them but also one that they possess. A complicated place, but a place with a certain beauty, a place that has empowered them to bring a certain beauty to their lives. 

For Martha Sequeda Dominguez, a waitstaff captain, and Daniela Chales Oropeza, an engineering assistant, the best part of the job is learning something new every day — making art in unexpected places, spending hours in the kitchen carving tomatoes into roses; climbing high above the water, painting pipes and structures and moving forward with adrenaline and focus. Through her work, Sequeda was able to save enough money to send her son to college, where he studies law — a dream, now realized, born offshore.

Yuridia Gutiérrez Rivera, who works in industrial security, finds beauty in the second family she’s formed, one of people scattered across Mexico but brought together in the middle of the ocean. Marcela Martínez Martínez, who has worked in the industry since 2008, remembers beauty in unexpected moments — like when the food drop wasn’t going to arrive for her platform and they were allowed to fish off its side, balling up bread as bait and later feasting on ceviche, fried fish and a giant lobster. 

Castillo describes her work offshore as the root of “everything beautiful you see I have.” Her children have taken up professions inspired by her work in the industry: geologist, chemical engineer, flight attendant. And now, after ending a 19-year marriage, Castillo is in love again — with a man she met offshore. 

These women find and create beauty even in the most painful moments on platforms, when absence and separation are most palpable. Claudia recalls organizing workers on her previous platform to bring big bags of their favorite candy around the holidays, laughing together as they stuffed piñatas for Christmas and New Year’s Eve. 

Many of these memories are distant from the current realities offshore: Pemex has been called “the world’s deadliest Covid company,” with cramped quarters and stretched-thin medical resources that make platform workers “10 times as likely as the average Mexican citizen” to die from Covid-19, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. The women still working offshore report varying levels of comfort and even longer hours than usual — a chef told me in July that, given the new sanitation requirements and staffing reductions, she was now starting work at 5 a.m. and finishing at 10 or 11 p.m. For several months, many offshore shifts doubled in length from 14 to 28 days.

Ramos celebrating her retirement on August 26, 2019.

Ramos, now retired, worries about her former co-workers; she posts on Facebook about colleagues that have died and urges friends who can socially distance and wear masks to do so. She sits at home with memories of her more than three decades on platforms, beautiful memories of a different world. 

She remembers the dark blue of the ocean mixing with the bright blue of the sky, and the superintendent who designated a place at the table for her with a sign that said “Reserved for the Queen of the Zaap Charly,” the platform where Ramos spent the majority of her career. She remembers the surprise birthday parties, the gifts and kind words of her patients, watching the moon move through its phases, feeling the ocean breeze. She remembers leaving her platform for the final time, the helicopter circling around the installation, workers waving goodbye from below. Her friend, beside her on the helicopter, had coordinated the aerial farewell with the pilot beforehand, “so you could say goodbye to your home,” he told Ramos, “your second home.” She began to cry.

This is the beauty of the work, beauty that is not a given for these women, but which they bring and build. This is the strength they inject into the situations they must get used to. The platforms they work on seem built of immovable, towering metal. They move them.