Finding fear: women and work in a modern day oil boomtown

You are here

Finding fear: women and work in a modern day oil boomtown

by Nicole Martin on Tuesday, April 26, 2016 - 5:31pm

When Kristine Kilanski began her doctoral research on women’s labor in modern day oil boomtowns, she never planned on studying fear. Instead, she began like most researchers, with a set of abstract theoretical questions. In her case, these were about gender, labor markets and the economy, and more specifically, about women’s job opportunities in the oil boomtowns popping up throughout the country since the late 2000s. However, as Kilanski explains, “It didn’t take long for the issue of fear to stare me in the face.”

In early 2014, Kilanski, currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, moved to an isolated, but swiftly growing, Midwestern oil boomtown. Almost immediately, loved ones expressed concerns about her safety, while articles in the media suggested she was entering one of the most dangerous communities in the U.S. for women. Once there, Kilanski also found fear—everywhere. Fear was not only the language mediating how women understood the town, which Kilanski calls “Boomville,” but was also shaping women’s work-related decisions.

Kilanski’s findings are important because they offer novel insights into the role gender plays in times of momentous economic change. Sociologists have found that women usually face increased hostility and discrimination in the formal labor market during times of scarcity. By flipping the scenario and instead examining what happens to women’s opportunities in a rapidly expanding and highly profitable economy, and finding that women still lose out, Kilanski’s research contributes to the understanding of how gender inequality embeds itself into ideas about work and the labor market. 

The gendered burden of fear

The way in which fear lay at the heart of women’s experiences in Boomville is what Kilanski calls the “gendered burden of fear.” She defines this as “the fear for their own or other’s safety shouldered by women, and the consequences this fear has for women’s well-being and full inclusion into society.” So what exactly did the women of Boomville fear and how did this fear manifest itself? 

After living and working in Boomville for six months, and conducting dozens of interviews with women and self-identified experts in the community, Kilanski uncovered a number of major fears. These included fear of pedophiles and sex offenders; fear of “outsiders,” which usually meant migrants, a term often racially coded by white townspeople grappling with Boomville’s changing ethnic composition; and fear of harassment and physical violence, usually sexual in nature and seemingly accepted as “part and parcel of living or working in a male-dominated environment.” 

Kilanski discovered that Boomville’s women dealt with their fears in multiple ways. Some women avoided patronizing certain locations alone, if at all—like bars, strip clubs and even Walmart—all places understood to be where violence regularly transpired. Other women seriously considered turning down well-paid employment opportunities. One woman told Kilanski she almost declined a job in Boomville despite it being the only decent one she had been able to find. She explained, “When I got on the internet and looked at all the horror stories… it concerned me.”

While many women utilized a strategy of avoidance, others tried to sanitize and make sense of the harassment. One of Kilanski’s interviewees, a woman in her twenties, told her, “Like everybody is used to the cat calls. I used to feel very uncomfortable in my old neighborhood because people just stare at you but they are just staring, there’s no touching. Super goofy guy type of stuff.”  Thus, rather than be intimidated by men’s behavior, these women normalized it by adopting a “boys will be boys” attitude.

Other women, however, dismissed the gendered burden of fear altogether by blaming an overhyped media. One woman told Kilanski, “I just get so irritated reading these articles that make this place out to be the Wild West. It’s not.” While Kilanski found that some women’s fears did stem from personal experience, others derived, much like these women were suggesting, from community gossip and the media.

The real consequences of women's fears

Whether the fears were overhyped or not is ultimately a moot point to Kilanski. What she is interested in are the real consequences this discourse of fear has on women’s lives. By depicting Boomville as a masculine, “Wild West” landscape unsafe for women, the language of fear directly impacted women’s opportunities for high paying jobs. Employers and job recruiters, Kilanski explains, sometimes actively discouraged women from taking jobs in Boomville. Some women, she found, left lucrative service jobs because of harassment by men. Similarly, women showed little interest in oil field and higher paying, blue collar jobs dominated by men because they feared this very same type of harassment.

Another major consequence was the restriction of women’s movement because of fear. In some cases, Kilanski learned, women would lock themselves up inside their apartments all day and night unless accompanied outside by a man. This meant that women were wholly dependent on the protection of men, an arrangement that could prove unstable if a male partner suddeny decided to relinquish his protection. And perhaps most disturbingly, fears of the outside world that kept women inside ironically put them nearer to other forms of danger. Domestic violence calls in Boomville have risen dramatically since the oil boom began, she says.

While ideas about fear followed Kilanski everywhere she went in Boomville, she refused to approach fear as an unquestionable reality. Instead, she treated it like any other phenomenon or concept that is only given meaning and power “within a specific historical, geographic and social context.” By following the messy ways in which fear affected the lives of Boomville’s women residents, Kilanski’s research demonstrates that even in times of abundance fear works to keep women’s workplace inequality in place.


Nicole Martin
Graduate Voice & Influence Program Fellow 2015-2016, History

Nicole received her B.A. in gender history from the University of California, Berkeley and her M.St. in Women’s Studies from Oxford University.

Nicole’s focus is in the historical intersections of American imperialism and gender in the American West. Her research investigates the role of the home and alternative domesticities during the Reconstruction...

Kristine Kilanski
Postdoctoral Fellow 2015-17

Kristine Kilanski is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Her previous work examined how gender inequality is embedded into 21st century work organizations, the effectiveness of corporate diversity programs for increasing the inclusion of women and racial/ethnic minorities, and how poor people respond to violence in their communities. Kristine’s dissertation...