Chapter 1: And that is when it all started…

I arrive a little early, not too much, just enough to be polite without showing my nervousness.

I glance at the others. Next to me is a young dynamic executive, a caricature of the young ambitious wolf, wearing a grey suit and fashionable tie. A little further on, dressed in his Sunday best, an Indiana-Jones type who cannot stand still. To my left, the eternal first in the class, characteristically equipped with spectacles. I continue my tour, we are twelve in total, the average age is about 22 to 25 years. Everyone is wearing a jacket and tie. Only ties? What a surprise! No other “she” on the horizon. One against eleven. The battle will be rough.

Do I really belong here? Come on, Magali, this is not the time to doubt. Remember, you are the best.

Was I right to dress like this? Obviously, I couldn’t wear a skirt for this interview, but my leather suit… is it too provocative?

I had adopted the right tone, the heels to show my femininity and the pantsuit to prove that despite everything… Without forgetting the final touch: a hint of make-up, which fails to hide my nervousness. Are they all as anxious? Are they all as motivated? I try to read on the faces of my companions which of them will be my most serious competitors, but without much success, I do not even know the selection criteria.

I have no regrets and I am happy to be here. I will prove to them that I am capable of this.

After all this time preparing, the moment has finally come.

It all started a year ago when I received a phone call from Joël who shouted on the end of the line: “Magali, we have to see each other! I absolutely must introduce you to someone. You’ll see, his story, it’s so you.”

Joël knows me very well, he must have good reason to be so excited.

We were students together at an engineering school which had over a hundred clubs. In my first year, I was treasurer of the sailing club while he was president of a club in charge of organizing THE party, a twenty-four-hour bike race which drew over ten thousand visitors. It was an opportunity for the campus to open up to the outside world with various activities, including a live concert. We became the best of friends when I took over from him as head of this colossus.

Last year, Joël left to continue his studies in Paris while I finished mine in Lyon. I continued to be involved in student associations and ended up being president of the Student Center of this school of three thousand students. A position of honor, if ever there was one.

Above all, it was a first in the school, which despite being twenty-five percent female, had hardly any women at the head of the fifty clubs. To be president of the two largest was unprecedented, especially since no woman had ever held these positions. This caused as much surprise as it did defiance and as much encouragement as obstruction. I could feel everyone watching me, waiting for the mistake, the error that would show that I had been too ambitious, thinking I could do what no man had done before. But nothing could stop me and I proved to them the value of a woman.

I look back on this today and it sustains me. Yes, I have already faced worse situations, challenges due to my gender, and at 22, I am ready to take on the world.

After I hung up, I sat there for a while thinking. I needed a bit of spice in my life. I had successfully tackled the biggest challenges that came my way during my studies which had given me a taste for adventure. A few months before my graduation, like most young people who find themselves propelled into working life, I was looking for my path. My only clue was that I needed adventure and novelty, the opposite of routine work, but what? I dreamt of going abroad, of changing settings. All this is not to say I am unhappy, but I am bored, the most unbearable feeling of all. I have to move, always, never stop, barely slow down, always higher, stronger.

My past is similar to thousands of others. A primary school teacher for a mother, and a father who started as a factory worker, rose through the ranks, encouraged by my mother, and ended up as a photographer in an industrial company, living from his passion.

I had a golden childhood with severe but loving parents. At sixteen, my parents divorced, unexpectedly. They were parents who did not argue, or at least not in front of us, but it was a progressive separation. Until the suicide attempt, the final act of despair in the face of an inevitable situation; where one feels one’s husband is pulling away, being incapable of retaining him, refusing one’s destiny, finding refuge in the sleeping pills, falling asleep, forgetting.

And me, a carefree teenager who finds her mother bizarrely drowsy. Then, the trash can, the boxes of pills that tell the story, followed by panic, the ambulance, the emergency room. Everyone takes care of the mother; the daughter is forgotten. The nagging whys, the guilt. I should have seen the signs. I should have stopped her. Petty family members take advantage of the situation to settle scores. It is so much easier to accuse a young girl than to face your own demons. I feel myself sinking. It is so good to sleep. A week to mope around, to ask questions with no answers. A week where everything is at stake.

But where has the fighter gone? I cannot let myself go. My mother needs me. I don’t have the right to add to her distress the guilt of having ruined my life. My older sister is busy with her studies, it is up to me to react. This is not the time to cry, I have a mother to support, a house to keep, meals to prepare and laundry to iron for a father who is lost with housework. I also have to keep the family at a distance, ignore accusations, and surround us with positivity. 

And then there is the Baccalaureate at the end of the year. I absolutely cannot fail this final school exam. My mother wouldn’t recover from that.

I’m juggling everything at once, I’ll sleep later, when my mother is back, when I’ve passed my exam, when the situation is stabilized. For 6 months I led several lives in parallel – the house, my mother, my studies – going from carefree adolescence to the age of responsibility and problems. Is this when I developed my need for challenges? Maybe. Probably. But above all, I learned to face problems and I gained self-confidence. Yes, I can do anything.

And of course, my life would not be complete without a teenage heartbreak. Three years of promises and love, ended with this letter, “I met someone and I think a lot will change between us.” It is still too recent for me to be completely over it, but I carry it like an old scar to stroke from time to time and that helps you to mature.

One day, I went up to Paris to see Joël again and meet this very famous friend. He is only a few years older than me, but already looks like a mature man while I look like the perennial teenager with my jeans and sneakers. Of course, he’s handsome. Of course, he’s arrogant. He has just returned from Brazil where he worked for three years as a field engineer on drilling rigs (oil platforms in their jargon). He recounts a bustling life where you have to be ready at any moment of the day or night when the phone rings, to jump in your four-wheel drive and leave, on your own, to a rig in the middle of nowhere.

I don’t quite understand what his job consists of, but he talks about travelling, jungles, off-roading, adventure, of a job so unusual that I have never heard of it, as far from everyday routine as possible. I don’t understand everything, but it doesn’t matter, he manages to make me dream. I leave with my eyes filled with stars. I have found my path!

Then I meet the COMPANY recruiters who participate in our annual student-business forum. I try to get them to explain their work a little better. I just understand that they work for the big oil companies by helping them drill for oil. Everything goes well until I express my interest, not for a position in a research center, as they might think, but for the position of Field Engineer. It takes me more than an hour to convince them that indeed, I realize how crazy I am, as a woman, to apply for such a position, but that despite everything, I do believe nonetheless that I could perhaps succeed if these gentlemen would give me a chance to prove myself or at least give me a questionnaire to fill in. They end up giving it to me, clearly more to get rid of me than because they are convinced by the validity of my arguments. That was a month ago.

Alright, here we go, they’re coming to get us. Half an hour late is reasonable. Ah, if I wasn’t so nervous! After the usual greetings, we are entitled to three hours of presentation with a lot of documentaries during which I almost fall asleep several times. Good start, Magali, to show them your exceptional enthusiasm which compensates for your weaker sex.

They do not skimp on exotic images, showing countries I barely know the names of, full of dynamic young people who are clearly content on the job. We see people of all nationalities happily cohabiting, showing the great “multi-nationalism” of this company. We also get a glimpse of the fascinating world of oil, which has always attracted adventurers from all walks of life.

Finally, to wake us up, we have lunch with the recruiter. It is intended to make us relax and ask all the questions we are itching to raise. He takes the opportunity to try to judge our respective motivations and of course, I do not escape the inevitable questions:

˗ Why do you want this job? What does your mother think about it?

˗ Do you ask these questions to men too?

And the recruiter’s embarrassed response:

˗ No.

˗ Does that mean I get special treatment because I’m a woman?

Increasingly uncomfortable:

˗ No, of course not.

And me, without mercy:

˗ So you don’t really want me to answer that question, do you?

This is just one example of how unprepared recruiters can be in dealing with women who say they are capable of taking on male challenges. In another classic example, he asks me the names of the other companies I have applied to. I answer that I have not applied to any other company because I am only interested in this position.

– But, if they don’t take you, what will you do?

– I had planned to go around the world with my backpack, for a year or more, I will simply go back to my original plans.

Once again, silence. He must now regret having invited me here. I will have to learn to master this precarious balance of showing my character without scaring people off because of said character.

The afternoon goes by without further incident with interviews, logic tests and morpho-psychological analyses. I pass the tests with the compliments of the jury after answering all the questions correctly. The pressure sharpens my senses, I am in top form. The morpho-psychological study is surprising. I recognize myself completely in the portrait they draw of my personality, after only a few minutes of interview. But I don’t know if this is positive for the future or not.

This is only the first round and the beginning of two weeks of waiting before we will know if we have passed this preliminary selection. Two weeks is a long time to wait for an answer. I want this job. I want to become a field engineer, go to the oil rigs and work day and night, but most of all, I want to prove that I can do it. Of all the jobs I’ve heard about, this is the hardest and the only challenge up to my standards. It’s exactly what I need, a job that allows me to travel while proving to the world, or at least to my personal universe – it is perhaps a little presumptuous of me to think that the whole world is interested in my endeavors – that a woman can do a man’s job.

Then, the letter is here. I look at it for a while before opening it. My heart is racing. It is hard to open a letter with trembling hands. I’m not sure I want to open the letter to learn that my dream may have ended. I want to extend it a few more minutes. My shining confidence isn’t worth much now that no one is watching.

I am accepted… to come and spend a full weekend of selection in Italy – work attire required – during which our manual skills will be tested. I am jumping for joy, I have passed the first stage, I didn’t even know a month ago that they accepted women.

A few days later in Parma, we are treated like royalty, us penniless students used to hardship, charter flights and hostels. As soon as we arrive, after a few words of welcome, we immediately begin with a theoretical course that explains in detail the functioning of a typical tool. This tool is several meters long with a diameter of about fifteen centimeters and is made of an assembly of mechanical parts. In the evening, we get an invitation to a luxurious restaurant, where we get acquainted, knowing that we are competitors. I go straight to bed when I get back to the hotel. This is the final push. I know that this opportunity will not be repeated and I do not want to spoil it by giving in to my instincts as an inveterate party girl. The next morning, we continue to dismantle and reassemble the same equipment before the final written test to demonstrate that we have more or less followed and that our neurons are capable of learning. All this is interspersed with individual interviews.

At the end of the weekend, we leave without knowing the final result. We already know that more than half of us will be eliminated.

I know that the wait will not be long this time. Their choice is made, but they will announce it to us by post to avoid ruining the return trip.


Champagne! Music! Party!

I start on August 1st 1989, in Nigeria.

Chapter 2: The Great Departure