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.
Over the past five years, 25 lawsuits alleging gender discrimination, harassment, or retaliation have been filed against oil refineries, according to a BuzzFeed News and Type Investigations review of federal and California court documents. Only three of those cases have made it to trial.
One took place last December, on the fourth floor of the federal district court in downtown Oakland. When the pregnant plaintiff took the stand, she looked out on a largely empty room. To her far left sat two lawyers representing the American subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, the multinational oil giant that last year posted revenues of $396.5 billion, and the woman from human resources who had fired her. Next to her was her own legal team, a trio of lawyers working on the expectation that if they won, Shell would pay the bulk of their fees.
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 dangerous, dirty, 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.
The industry is expecting more than a million new jobs to open up in the coming decades, and “we can’t fill all those opportunities with white men,” said Rebecca Winkel, an economic adviser at the trade group American Petroleum Institute. After commissioning an initial study on the participation of women and people of color in the industry, API has spent millions on outreach and recruiting efforts targeting these groups, Winkel said.
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. That year, its CEO, Ben van Beurden, joined Catalyst CEO Champions for Change, a group of company leaders — including the head of Chevron — pledging to boost women’s participation across the workplace. In the same vein, the Martinez refinery changed the profile picture on its Facebook page to a smiling woman wearing a standard operator uniform of bright-red coveralls, hard hat, and safety goggles.
“Tell Sheila to send us pictures of her tits.”
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.”
Women in the industry — especially those who work hard-hat or laboratory jobs, worlds away from corporate suites — say that policies from on high meant to protect them often don’t trickle down. “Shell has a wonderful policy,” Rachel Price, who works in a lab at Shell’s refinery in Anacortes, Washington, and is suing over pay discrimination, told BuzzFeed News. “But it really has not trickled down to our level yet, or our plant.”
Nearly a dozen women refinery workers, employed by five companies, told BuzzFeed News they were attracted to the industry by the high pay and benefits, only to be driven out by harassment and discrimination. Some of them have shocking stories.
Shari Lawton, who was an operator at Tesoro’s Wilmington, California, refinery (now operated by Marathon), said she was asked for sexual favors by coworkers, one of whom exposed his penis to her at work. After she reported this behavior, according to her complaint, her locker was broken into, her work boots urinated on, and a dead mouse hidden in her uniform. She now works as a manager at a 99 Cents Only Store.
At an ExxonMobil refinery in Illinois, Amy Phillips, a lesbian and the only woman on her crew, said she was shoulder-checked by a male colleague and repeatedly found hateful graffiti about her on refinery equipment, such as “Amy Lazy Gay Bitch” and “Die Amy Fag Rat Bitch.” After she complained, “it got much worse,” Phillips told BuzzFeed News. She’s now on medical leave.
And Sheila Babot said that at the Shell Martinez refinery, at the same time Newton was there, a male coworker told her that if there was a spill, she should take off all her clothes and use the safety shower in front of the team. He also allegedly spoke about her in the men’s locker room, saying things such as, “Tell Sheila to send us pictures of her tits” and “Too bad Sheila’s married; maybe she’ll give us all blow jobs.” Babot said she was fired after complaining; the company blamed it on poor performance. Now she is a government analyst.
Lawton, Phillips, and Babot all took the rare step of suing their former employers. A search of federal court records in all 30 oil-refining states and two California county courts near refining hubs found 25 lawsuits over the past five years charging refineries with sexual harassment, gender discrimination, retaliation, or a combination of these. Six were dismissed because of insufficient evidence; seven were settled, including Lawton’s, often with nondisclosure agreements binding the women to silence; two were resolved in arbitration; six are ongoing, including Phillips’s and Babot’s cases; and the resolution of one could not be confirmed. In another case, two women lost at trial to Shell, appealed, and are heading back to court. Another woman lost against Shell in April. And then there’s Newton.
This is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Some women likely never come forward, due to shame or fear of retaliation, and others do it too late, after the statute of limitations to sue has passed. Even filing a claim with a state equal employment agency can be daunting because you’re taking a stand against not just an individual or several people but your company. Texas, home to more refineries than any other state, reported only “three or less” complaints over the last five years. Suing is much more grueling. The legal process can take years, and listening to coworkers and lawyers rip into you in a public trial is emotionally wrenching. And oil giants have vast resources. Often they file motion after motion, discovery request after discovery request. “It gets so expensive,” said Brandon Schwartz, a Minnesota-based employment discrimination lawyer who in 2015 settled a discrimination claim against a subsidiary of Koch Industries, the $110 billion refining and manufacturing company. That company, he said, was “trying to make it financial suicide to bring a claim against them.”
In written statements, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Marathon, and Phillips 66 all told BuzzFeed News they do not tolerate discrimination or harassment in the workplace. After publication, Koch Industries wrote in an email "we take any allegation of discrimination extremely seriously."
To fight Newton’s claims, Shell hired Gary Lafayette, of the Oakland-based law firm Lafayette and Kumagai. He has represented the Coca-Cola Company and Comcast and received the California Lawyer Attorney of the Year Award in 2002. As her lead lawyer, Newton hired Sonya Smallets, of the San Francisco–based firm Minnis and Smallets, who has spent more than a decade representing people facing discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in the workplace.
On the second day of Newton’s trial, both legal teams were so combative that Judge Yvonne Rogers reprimanded them, reminding both sides that they were in federal court and to show more decorum. She later scolded them for repeatedly raising objections to the point of slowing the interrogations of multiple witnesses to a crawl. Throughout the trial, when Lafayette leveled an accusation at Newton, he’d often turned away from the judge and jury to look directly at her.
But Newton didn’t flinch, and she didn’t settle.
Newton had dreamed of working at a refinery, just like her father, ever since she was a teenager.
She told the jury her dad spent decades as a pipe fitter and ironworker, a job that took him to many of the East Bay oil refineries, including Shell's Martinez. Newton remembered seeing pictures of him working on pipes and other structures, way up high, and thinking that it looked fun. But when she raised the idea of joining him after high school, he urged her to try something else first. It was a “rough environment” for women, he said. His message was clear: The industry was sexist.
She initially heeded this warning, working as a dental assistant for $18 an hour. But without a college degree, the refinery’s entry-level wage of $31.17 an hour — with the chance to advance and earn much more — lured her into a training program and then a job at Shell. She started as a process operator, one of only four women in the group of 22 new hires, at the Martinez refinery in January 2016.
Every day at the refinery about 165,000 barrels of crude oil — nearly 7 million gallons — are converted into more useful products, including asphalt, gasoline, and jet fuel. Refining happens around the clock. The facilities can be so big, workers use bikes or cars to get around. Some of the equipment is so bulky, handling it is rarely a solo job. Because the work is complicated and risky, new operators go through months of training, initially together in an eight-week orientation, and then dispersed in small teams.
Newton comfortably passed orientation. She was a quick learner, a team player, and safety conscious, according to reviews from her managers. She was the only woman recruit assigned to the hydrogen plant in the Operations Central department, or OPCEN, and immediately felt unwelcome. Days before starting the new post, she overheard OPCEN instructor Jeffrey Fischer curse upon learning whom he’d be training: “Motherfucker! Who the hell did I piss off to have these assholes coming to my department?”
Fischer fixated on Newton early on, asking who hired her and telling her, “Looks like you sure put on a good show.” He would repeatedly say, “Women don’t make it in OPCEN”; threaten to walk Newton “to the gate,” a euphemism for firing; boast about previously firing a crying woman operator; and publicly say she “wasn’t mechanically inclined.”
When Newton’s father suddenly died in March 2016, causing her to miss a week of work, Fischer said he didn’t have time to catch her up. After that, he graded her tests more harshly, didn’t put her on a particular team because “they already had a girl” (referring to a man who “bitches all the time”), and made her redo her certification paperwork for reasons even his bosses later said they did not understand.
“If your pussy hurts just stay home.”
After getting certified five months into the job, Newton was assigned a shift and a new supervisor, Cameron Curran. He, too, treated her differently than her male coworkers, following her around the unit and asking her: Why do you want to work here? What does your husband think? Are you scared?
In July, Curran reprimanded her for formally documenting a dangerous acid spill in one of her shift reports. “Are you trying to get people in trouble?” he asked. It’s better to handle these situations in person, he added, lest she get a reputation for being a “rat.” Intimidated, Newton deleted the spill from the report.
About a week after that conversation, unbeknownst to Newton, Curran made seven entries into her formal record regarding tardiness and mistakes she had allegedly made over the span of three days. He had never written her up before. Curran also flagged her performance to his boss, Eric Perez, who opened an investigation with HR. When Curran told Newton about the entries a week later, she complained about unfair treatment in a group meeting, which prompted a formal sit-down with HR, Perez, and two of Newton’s union reps.
Newton thought the purpose of the meeting was to air her claims of unfair treatment. Upon learning it would instead be a review of her work performance, the union sent two people to help advocate on her behalf.
Five people packed into a small office on the morning of Aug. 2. Perez kicked off the discussion with a review of Newton’s attendance record, claiming she had been late six times in five weeks, while her peers had not been late more than once. (It’s unclear why he only looked at this narrow window, mostly covering her time under Fischer and none of her time under Curran.) Then Perez walked through other “red flags” in her record, such as once opening the wrong drain valve on a tank, causing a fairly benign chemical to spill out.
Newton did not dispute the spill — she had reported it. But she saw a double standard in how her supervisor had asked her to cover up the report of her male coworkers’ more dangerous acid spill. After pushing back on the allegations against her, she launched into Fischer’s sexist remarks. But the HR representative, Christine Layne, cut her off.
“I want you to think about what you are doing,” Layne said, according to Newton’s later testimony. “You are making some very serious accusations.” Newton did not elaborate further. Perez agreed to investigate and asked Newton to share the names of anyone who may have witnessed Fischer’s comments.
After the meeting, Newton was again given a new supervisor, Richard Metcalf. Her work life improved until about three weeks after the meeting, when she arrived one Monday morning to find on her desk a sticker of a grumpy cartoon cat with the phrase, “If your pussy hurts just stay home.”
Horrified, she asked Perez to investigate. Perez emailed unit leaders about the discovery of “inappropriate material,” emphasizing it violated company policy. He never looked into who had put the sticker there, however, so no one was questioned or disciplined.
In September 2016, Perez asked Curran for feedback on whether to keep Newton past the new-hire probation period, and Curran recommended against it. Perez then interviewed Curran and Fischer about Newton’s harassment allegations, and they denied any wrongdoing.
Newton’s new supervisor, Metcalf, meanwhile, checked “yes” in response to the question on her review paperwork asking if she should stay employed. When Perez found out, he wrote to Metcalf: “I am not asking you to change anything but me and you need to be aligned on her performance and behaviors since she has been employed.” Afterward, Metcalf altered his recommendation, checking both the “yes” and “no” boxes.
On Sept. 28, Perez walked Newton into a room in the refinery’s main office, where a handbook about unemployment sat on the table. Layne of HR told Newton she was fired. When Newton asked why, Layne said: “This is not the time to discuss. We don’t need to tell you why.” Perez escorted Newton off the premises.
Recounting these incidents on the witness stand, Newton broke down in tears multiple times. Listening to former coworkers and supervisors call her incompetent and say they didn’t take her complaint seriously “was almost like reliving it all over again,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Shell’s team called on a slew of employees to refute her story. Fischer testified that he never made sexist remarks to Newton and said his criticisms of her final paperwork was a misunderstanding. Curran testified there was no ill intent in his documenting her mistakes and that he felt compelled to defend himself to Perez in their internal messages. Perez said Newton did not provide any concrete details about unfair treatment and that there was no need to investigate the sticker because he had taken steps “to put a stop to it.”
Layne, the HR rep, said she’d received no written guidance on how to conduct a harassment investigation. She also said Newton provided few details of her harassment, and she denied warning Newton not to share more. Several other Shell employees testified that Newton was not singled out for being a woman, plain and simple.
No one from Shell confirmed Newton’s version of events until the fourth day of testimony, when her union representative, Ray Jones, took the stand. In a booming voice, he said he was hired at Shell's Martinez Refinery in 1995 as an operator.
“She started sharing some experiences that she had had beginning at her initial training,” he said, referring to the Aug. 2 meeting where Newton described Fischer’s cursing and mistreatment. “And quite honestly, my jaw dropped. I could not believe that she had gone through a lot of these things that she was describing.”
Jones went on to confirm how Layne had warned Newton not to air her allegations. That’s when, Jones said, he called for a break to talk privately with Newton. “I told her that what she was describing is serious harassment and I felt like she should use Shell’s harassment process to make a formal complaint,” he said.
All the jurors were intently watching Jones. Layne, sitting in the courtroom near Shell’s lawyers, put her face in her hands.
On the afternoon of Dec. 19, eight days into the trial and two days into jury deliberations, the jurors filed back into the courtroom.
“I understand you have a unanimous verdict?” Judge Rogers asked the foreperson.
“We do, your honor,” he said.
Newton had made five claims: harassment based on gender; gender discrimination; retaliation; failure to prevent discrimination, harassment, or retaliation; and whistleblower retaliation. The jury found that she had established two of them: that she was harassed and that Shell had failed to prevent it.
“Counsel, do you want the jury polled?” Rogers asked. Both sides said yes, and all eight jurors individually confirmed the verdict.
By the time they were done, Newton was smiling. After fighting for two years, she told BuzzFeed News, she felt the record had finally been set straight. “I think that was the most important thing for me, and that was the biggest accomplishment,” she said.
Next the jury had to decide how much to award Newton in damages. Shell’s lawyer, Lafayette, suggested $25,000, if that; one of Newton’s lawyers, Emily Nugent, suggested $250,000, or possibly even more. Then the jury shuffled back to their isolated room for more discussion.
In the late afternoon, the jury sent a question: “What can we expect will happen if we cannot agree on an amount now or five days from now?” The judge called the lawyers back into court to discuss how to proceed.
“There’s no reward or number that’s going to take away the pain and disrespect that I was given by Shell.”
Neither lead lawyer had encountered this scenario before, with a mistrial looming after the plaintiff had proved her claims, and the jury was exhausted. So everyone was sent home for the night. Newton’s earlier excitement was gone, replaced with dread.
“I wanted to tell them,” Newton said, referring to the jury, “there’s no reward or number that’s going to take away the pain and disrespect that I was given by Shell when I worked there or during the trial or after I worked there.”
The jury resumed deliberations the next day at 8:30 a.m. The judge asked each side to write on a piece of paper how they would like to proceed. Newton’s lawyers proposed telling the jury that if they didn’t come up with a specific dollar amount, it would result in a mistrial, and Lafayette suggested dismissing the jury.
But just as the judge was weighing her decision, the court security guard interrupted: “They say they have a verdict.”
This time as the jury filed in, Newton kept her gaze on the floor.
The final verdict was read aloud: Newton was awarded damages for past and future mental suffering and emotional distress in the amount of $475,000. The jury also found at least one Shell representative or employee had engaged in conduct with malice, oppression, or fraud. (No specific individual was named.) After each juror confirmed the verdict out loud, Newton finally looked up, crying.
Lawyers for both sides jumped on their phones. Newton could barely talk, overwhelmed with emotion. She had become the first person to win a harassment claim against any major US refinery company in federal court in at least five years.
In response to repeated requests for an interview and specific questions sent in writing about recent cases, including Newton’s, as well as how the company handles sexual harassment, a Shell spokesperson emailed: “We are committed to maintaining a diverse and inclusive workplace which reflects our core principles of honesty, integrity and respect. We take any allegations seriously, following rigorous processes to review them, and we disagree with the claims that have been made in these cases. It is not appropriate for us to comment in detail on individual personnel matters.”
The trial is over, but the fight is not.
Earlier this year, Newton’s lawyers asked the court to mandate that Shell Martinez Refinery employees get training on an annual basis that “should cover the subject of gender harassment, including verbal or visual depictions of the belief that women are not wanted in the workplace, and how to submit a complaint,” and that the refinery overhaul its policies for investigating harassment complaints. Rogers denied these requests.
Shell’s lawyers, meanwhile, argued for the judge to overturn the jury verdict, or at least to lower the damages to $25,000. The judge has not yet announced her decision. If Rogers rules in favor of upholding the verdict and the award, Shell could appeal to the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. “They are not going down without a fight,” Nugent said. (Shell declined to comment on the specifics of the case.)
Despite the industry’s public efforts to recruit women, and the energy of the #MeToo movement, critics say the culture at oil and gas refineries is nearly as toxic now as it was 30 years ago. “I’ve seen change, but it is glacially slow and it shouldn’t be,” said Kathryn Dickson, who represented the women in Big Oil’s first big harassment scandal in the early 1990s, when Chevron paid out $2.2 million in combined settlements to four women suing for harassment and $8.5 million in settlements to hundreds of women suing for pay discrimination. She blamed the past problems on Chevron being “a man’s club for so long” and later said progress in the industry has been so slow “because men are still largely in control.”
“Their actions while I was an employee, in court and now, pretty much sum up the atmosphere of disrespect and neglect Shell has to offer women who have been harassed and try to report it,” Newton said in an email.
Newton’s baby girl was born at the end of January. After her maternity leave ended, she went back to work in customer service at Alaska Airlines, making about $14.65 an hour — less than half of what she was making at Shell. Coming from a family where multiple cousins and a brother-in-law still frequent refineries for work, Newton is constantly reminded of the opportunity that was taken from her. And she can’t help but miss it.
“The main thing I miss is how much there is to learn,” Newton said, later adding, “My current job isn’t really challenging in the same way.”
She even said she thinks about one day, when her daughter is older, maybe trying again, just not at Shell. “If they just hired more women, and more women were being successful there, there wouldn’t be such — it wouldn’t be so hard to think about walking back into that environment,” she said. ●
This story has been updated to include a response from Koch Industries.
This article was reported in partnership with Type Investigations, where Zahra Hirji is an Ida B. Wells fellow.