Big Oil Has A Diversity Problem The business wants to attract more women and minorities, but a history of racism and sexism makes that difficult.

Big Oil Has A Diversity Problem

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The U.S. oil industry has well-paid, steady jobs. It also has an ugly history of racism and sexism. It's still dominated by white men. As NPR's Jeff Brady reports, that's making it harder to attract a new generation to the oil business. A warning - his story has some offensive language.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: The pipeline construction business is booming these days. Pipeliners Local 798 held a membership meeting outside Cleveland recently.


DANNY HENDRIX: All I've got is good news today.

BRADY: Speaking under a big tent to a mostly white crowd, business manager Danny Hendrix said his union is growing, and finances are good.


BRADY: Charles Simpson was not at that meeting. He lives in the region but quit the union 10 years ago because of the disturbing way his colleagues treated him.

CHARLES SIMPSON: You walk down the pipe, and you see epithets - nigger, go home scribbled on a pipe, nooses on the pipe. You had a lot of welders who would just tell you straight up that, you know, I don't mess with your kind.

BRADY: Simpson says he liked the work and the pay was good, but the racism was more than he could bear.

SIMPSON: Even during the break times, you know, they would huddle off to themselves. You know, if you needed water or something, you know, you learn pretty quickly you better carry your own because you can't even get water from them.

BRADY: Complaints of racism and sexism against Local 798 go back decades. In the mid-1980's the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission won a big discrimination case against the union. At the time, the Pipeliners did not have a single African-American member and only one woman. Even now after two decades of EEOC oversight, the entire leadership team is all white males. I asked union business manager Danny Hendrix about that.

HENDRIX: 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.

BRADY: While Local 798 leaders appear unconcerned about Charles Simpson's claims of epithets, nooses and even physical harassment on the job, others in the oil industry have a very different reaction. Rebecca Winkel is with the American Petroleum Institute.

REBECCA WINKEL: I mean, there's no other word for it than unacceptable. It's terrible. And that should never, ever happen. And certainly we would never wish that on anybody. And I would say to this man, I'm so sorry that that was your experience.

BRADY: The oil industry can be a difficult place for women, too. Katie Mehnert used to be with Shell and BP and remembers a work flight about four years ago.

KATIE MEHNERT: And a gentleman next to me said, what's a pretty, young lady like you doing in a dark, dangerous business like oil?

BRADY: That motivated Mehnert to start a business called Pink Petro. It's an online community and career site for women in the oil industry. Now when she sees sexism, she calls it out. This summer, she wrote about the head of a drilling company. He promoted a trade show party with a photo of two women in tank tops. Mehnert says the industry also has some subtler problems with its events.

MEHNERT: Because these trade shows do tend to have a higher male population, some of the women's bathrooms are closed, you know, for the men, you know? And those kind of things, believe it or not, really - they get to women, right? It makes them feel kind of like, hey, I'm not welcome here.

BRADY: Oil industry leaders say they want to be more welcoming in part because of something they call The Great Crew Change. After the oil bust in the 1980's, a lot of companies stopped hiring. That's left an aging and overwhelmingly white workforce. The American Petroleum Institute's Rebecca Winkel says the industry needs to attract a new generation that includes more women and minorities.

WINKEL: We know from the Census Bureau that we will be a majority minority country by 2044 - is what they project. Those changing demographics demand that we pay more attention to diversity than perhaps we have in the past.

BRADY: Winkel says that's happening now. Oil companies are spending a lot of time and money to recruit a more diverse workforce. Jeff Brady, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow on Morning Edition, Jeff looks at how the oil industry is trying to diversify.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.