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After being harassed and pushed out of a Shell oil refinery, this woman pushed back

As published by BuzzFeed News
Zahra Hirji, BuzzFeed News Reporter
August 6, 2019

Ciara Newton had her dream job at a Shell refinery. But she was fired after enduring months of harassment, including sexist comments from supervisors and a lewd sticker.

OAKLAND, California — She walked toward the witness stand at eight months pregnant, her slow steps echoing in the cavernous federal courtroom.

Two years earlier, she had been fired from her dream job at a Shell refinery after enduring months of harassment — sexist comments from two male supervisors, reprimands for documenting her coworkers’ mistakes, a lewd sticker on her desk. She got the termination notice just days before the end of her job’s nine-month probation period. The fallout was devastating. She lost the loan needed to buy her recently widowed mother’s house, spiraled into depression and anxiety, and ended up working at an airline two hours from her home for half the pay.

The oil and gas industry is one of the last bastions of male-dominated work, with nearly four times as many men as women. Several of the biggest companies, including Shell, Chevron, and ExxonMobil, have launched splashy campaigns over the past decade to recruit more women and close the gender gap. But these efforts haven’t accomplished much. There is little doubt, lawyers and women in the industry say, that sexual and gender-based harassment remains rampant. And yet Big Oil has received surprisingly little scrutiny in the #MeToo era, partly because it’s difficult to gauge the scale of the problem. For example, 11 states, representing about a third of US refineries, and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said their rules bar releasing the number of gender discrimination and harassment complaints filed against specific refineries. . . .

She raised her right hand, swore to tell the truth, and took a seat, her long brown hair dangling down her shoulder. The court clerk told her to pull the microphone close and state her name.

“My name,” she said softly, “is Ciara Newton.”

The 131 oil refineries across the US are dangerousdirty, and physically demanding places to work. Of the roughly 70,000 people employed at those sprawling facilities, only about 12,000 — or 17% — are women. Newton acutely felt this disparity when she started working at Shell’s Martinez refinery, located across the bay from San Francisco. In her department of about 60 people, she was one of just four women.

Over the past decade, oil and gas companies have invested in recruiting and retaining more women: featuring women’s faces in ads, videos, and social media posts; increasing maternity leave; spending millions on programs to get girls into math and science; setting recruitment targets; and instituting internal mentorship programs.

Shell has also taken steps in the past few years to woo women, such as boosting the gender balance on its board from 10 men and 1 woman to 6 men and 5 women. (The trend is less clear at the employee level, where 27,000 women made up 29% of the company in 2013, and 25,000 women made up 31% in 2018.) Shell was also the first major oil company to set a minimum maternity leave of 16 weeks, effective as of 2018. . .

But such policies often can’t overcome a lopsided gender imbalance. “Once you don’t have a gender mix in the workplace, people seem to behave less well,” said Keith Rohman, founder of Public Interest Investigations, a group hired by companies to investigate internal complaints. In his experience investigating complaints at firehouses, for example, a ratio of less than 1 in 4 women leads to a big uptick in harassment. “In a largely male-dominated workplace, it’s hard for women. It just is.”

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