The U.S. oil industry is trying to find a new generation of workers in a country that is becoming more diverse. But a history of sexism and racism is making that difficult.

The oil industry has struggled to solve its diversity problem despite having some big advantages. It's a wealthy industry accustomed to taking on complicated challenges (think deep-water offshore drilling and fracking). And oil and gas companies already have decades of experience operating all over the world in various environments. Still, the diversity problem persists.

"The racism in this job, it's unreal"

In the mid-1980s the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission tried to address one large case of racism and sexism involving a union — Pipeliners Local 798 based in Tulsa, Okla. The union is a big player in the pipeline construction business. It dispatches welders and their helpers to large projects across much of the U.S.

Attorney Bob Harwin, who argued the Pipeliners case on behalf of the EEOC, says the case still stands out for him. He is now retired after 37 years at the commission.

"This was just the most blatant discrimination on a large scale that I can recall seeing since I started working," says Harwin.

In his decision, Judge H. Dale Cook noted that Local 798 had about 5,200 members at the time but that there were "no black members and there were no female members until the eve of trial, May 1986, when Local 798 admitted a woman into the membership."

Harwin says union members were willing to testify against their own leadership because "they wouldn't hire their mother, their sister, their wife — they wouldn't bring them onto union membership or refer them to jobs."

For 20 years, the union was forced to actively recruit and admit women and African-Americans. In 2007, the EEOC agreed to end its oversight of the union — exactly why isn't clear because the commission can't locate some of its records for the case. At around the same time, Charles Simpson joined the union and says that despite the federal oversight, he experienced racism on a regular basis.

"You'd walk down the pipe and see epithets 'n***** go home' scribbled on the pipe," says Simpson. He also says nooses were left for him and other black co-workers to find.

Nooses at work sites have been reported elsewhere, and they show up repeatedly in court records of discrimination cases (two examples are here and here).

Working for Local 798, Simpson says some of his white colleagues would huddle to themselves during breaks. "If you needed water or something, you learned pretty quickly that you better carry your own because you couldn't even get water from them," says Simpson.

"It offends me, of course, that we worked so hard to get this union integrated and that somebody would be exposed to any kind of harassment by the Pipeliners," says Harwin.

Simpson could have filed another case with the EEOC, but he chose not to. He reported the epithets and nooses and a few cases of physical harassment to the union but says nothing was done.

"The racism in this job, it's unreal ... It's unchecked and I believe it's designed to scare individuals off," says Simpson. After about three years, he decided he couldn't take it any longer and quit the union.

Even today, the union's leadership doesn't seem very concerned about Simpson's claims.

"If you've got an organization this size — over 7,500 people — you're going to occasionally have a complaint," Danny Hendrix, business manager of Pipeliners Local 798 told NPR.

Hendrix says his union has a clear policy prohibiting discrimination. A member can be kicked out of the union for violating it, although Hendrix says that is never happened.

It's not clear how many women or African-Americans are in Local 798 today because the union says it doesn't track those statistics. Hendrix says there are minorities — especially Native Americans — in just about every position in the union. But a look at the Local 798 website shows the entire leadership is white men.

Asked about that observation, Hendrix says, "The cream always comes to the top and I've surrounded myself by some of the best leaders in the pipeline industry. Are they white? They just happen to be, yes."

While Local 798's leader appears unconcerned about Charles Simpson's claims, others in the oil industry have a very different reaction.

"I mean there's no other word for it than unacceptable. It's terrible and that should never, ever happen," says Rebecca Winkel, who directs research on workforce development at the American Petroleum Institute.

To Simpson, Winkel says, "I'm so sorry that this was your experience."

"What's a pretty young lady like you ... "

The oil industry can been a difficult place to work for women.

Katie Mehnert used to work for large companies on health, safety and environment issues. Four years ago, she says she was on a work flight, "and a gentleman next to me said, 'What's a pretty young lady like you doing in a dark, dangerous business like oil?' "

Mehnert says that she was too stunned to say anything at the time but that the experience changed the course of her career. She started a business called Pink Petro — an online community — and a career site for women in the oil industry.

Now when she sees sexism in the oil industry, she calls it out. Recently she wrote an opinion piece titled "Beers, Guns and Babes Have No Place in Industry." It was directed at the head of a drilling rig company who promoted a trade show party with a photo of two women in tank tops.

Still underrepresented

Oil industry leaders say they want be more welcoming to women and minorities. Both groups are underrepresented across much of the oil industry, compared with the U.S. workforce as a whole.

One example is the category "oil and gas extraction," where Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers show only 20.2 percent of workers are women, compared with 46.8 percent in the overall workforce. African-Americans make up only 6.2 percent in the same category, compared with 11.9 percent overall.

At oil companies, "for both women and for African-Americans, they tend to be among the worst performing in terms of both pay gaps and employment representation," says sociologist Don Tomaskovic-Devey. He directs the Center for Employment Equity at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and wrote a report about these federal labor statistics.

Tomaskovic-Devey says some firms probably do a better job than others. He says it's difficult to know because those numbers aren't available. "The key thing to understand is when diversity is a managerial priority, it happens," he says.

The great crew change

A few people at the top of the oil business do want to make diversity a priority. One reason is something the industry calls "The Great Crew Change." After the oil bust in the 1980s, a lot of companies stopped hiring. That has left the industry with an aging workforce that includes many who are headed toward retirement.

Winkel co-authored a 2016 American Petroleum Institute research report detailing how many women and minorities work in the oil and gas business now and how that could change in the future. It projects the industry needs to attract 1.9 million new workers by 2035 to make up for retirements and growth in the oil business.

"We know from the Census Bureau that we will be a majority-minority country by 2044 ... Those changing demographics demand that we pay more attention to diversity than, perhaps, we have in the past," says Winkel.

You can see evidence of the industry's desire to at least appear as if it's changing in advertisements for big oil companies. One from ExxonMobil shows a string of mostly women and minority workers wearing hard hats and holding signs that tout the benefits of the industry.

Chevron's Twitter posts highlight the company's commitment to diversity in its suppliers.

The company has made diversity and inclusion one of the core principles highlighted in its mission statement called "The Chevron Way."

"Staffing our workforce for the future is a priority and we actually start focusing on our talent pipeline with kids as young as 5 years old," says Rhonda Morris, vice president of human resources at Chevron.

Big oil companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil spend millions promoting science and math to children around the world — in part hoping that it will lead to a more diverse workforce. At colleges, those companies recruit women and minorities and then offer them mentors. And for existing employees, there are programs such as unconscious bias training.

Ray Dempsey, the chief diversity officer at BP America, says this is good for business. "There's data that you can find from many, many sources that talk about how much difference a more diverse and a more inclusive workforce can make on your fundamental business outcomes."

Dempsey says executives already embrace diversity. The focus these days is on middle managers where the hiring and firing happens.

But he says there are other things about the oil industry that are difficult to change, like where the oil or gas is located. Dempsey says it's often in remote places, "versus the urban centers where minorities — communities of color — tend to be and, frankly, where people from those communities tend to want to live and to work."

Dempsey says the industry needs to do more to make rural places welcoming to women and minorities.

Rod Hinton knows about this issue. He is an African-American attorney who moved to eastern Ohio a decade back to work in the oil business.

"Here you got to live in the white man's world. It's pickup trucks and Confederate flags, Trump signs everywhere ... That'll turn a lot of minorities off," says Hinton.

In the oil business, Hinton is a "landman" — he secures titles for drilling rights on private land. It's a good living, but he is considering a career change because he doesn't see opportunities to advance.

Hinton would like to become an executive but says he still doesn't get invited to the golf trips and dinners that are part of moving up in the oil business.

"I won't say there's overt racism, more of a good old boy network — an understood code: You look out for your own. I'm not their own," says Hinton.

Hinton has started a new business in an emerging industry where he doesn't see an established "good old boy network." He is creating what he calls "a marijuana lifestyle brand" called Dopeaholics.

Hinton says that at marijuana industry events, his race feels like less of a factor. And now he believes he has found a field where the opportunity matches his ambition.

Just one instance

The summer after Stephanie Puckly's freshman year at the Pennsylvania College of Technology included an internship with a Texas company that builds offshore oil rigs. But Puckly says she never got a chance to use her welding skills.

While Hinton feels like he doesn't fit into the industry more generally, sometimes all it takes is one bad experience for a person of color or a woman to decide the oil industry is not right for them. That is what happened with Puckly.

"The male interns were out — usually in the field all day — while I was in the office," says Puckly, who was upset by that because she had the skills to do the same work the male interns were doing.

The company — Kiewet Offshore Services — says it tries to ensure that interns have a well-rounded experience. But Puckly says that didn't happen in her case.

For her next internship, Puckly says she found a more welcoming environment in the automotive industry. Now she intends to pursue a career in that field instead of oil and gas.

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