Groping. Catcalling. Crude texts. We spoke to women in the oil industry who say they faced sexual harassment and were punished for speaking out.
With stunning precision, Sara Saidman, an oil field engineer, can still recall the moment that “set the tone for the rest of my employment at Schlumberger,” a Texas-based oil field services company.
Saidman took a job at Schlumberger in 2016 because the company had a reputation for being the best in the industry. In her first week of working at a New Mexico drilling site, Saidman was sitting on a couch near her trainer Leslie Bullard, a large woman with a thick West Texas accent. Bullard slid her hand down Saidman’s left knee, onto her thigh, and grabbed her vagina, she says. Saidman bolted into her bedroom and hid under her covers for the rest of her night. Bullard declined to comment.
“There was no shaking what just happened,” she says. “She was in charge of my promotion, and I couldn’t even get away because we shared a bedroom.” At the time, Saidman was a 21-year-old woman surrounded by mostly male coworkers twice her age. A coworker told her that speaking up about sexual harassment tanked women’s careers in the oil field, so she didn’t report the incident.
While some female oil field workers have come forward publicly with sexual harassment claims or lawsuits against their respective companies, many of the nearly dozen oil field workers the Observer spoke to say the #MeToo movement has yet to hit the oil industry. While men can also be victims of sexual assault, female oil workers say sexual harassment against women is prevalent because of the high percentage of men in the industry, lax management, and poor handling of harassment claims. A University of Massachusetts study found that, between 2012 and 2016, the oil and gas industry had the highest rate of sexual harassment claims filed by women with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (About half of the cases they studied didn’t list a specific industry, however.)
Women interviewed for this story say they have experienced groping, catcalling, persistent sexual badgering, and crude texts while working in the oil field. Many say their harassers were mostly male supervisors who consistently made sexually charged, inappropriate remarks. Often, they say, upper management brushed off their complaints, and in some cases, even punished women for coming forward with accusations. Many women the Observer spoke to asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.
“Anyone who has a mark against them, anyone who dissents in any way, they’re the first ones to walk the plank,” says Christine Williams, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Schlumberger is notorious for churning the labor force.” It’s easy to be shunned from the industry, especially when the price of oil is low and companies lay off droves of employees, Williams says. “When you live in fear of the ax falling, that’s the formula for keeping people silent,” she says. “It’s also the formula for nurturing the climate of sexual harassment.”
Saidman is now fighting the company in court as the primary plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against Schlumberger. She’s joined in the suit by another female field engineer who says she experienced sexual harassment at the company. Schlumberger declined to comment for this story.
Some oil companies offer generous severance payments to laid off employees—but there’s a catch. In order to receive the money, workers must promise not to sue. “People keep their mouth shut because they’ve got to get a paycheck,” says Katie Mehnert, the CEO of ALLY (formerly known as Pink Petro), a consulting organization that helps foster diversity and inclusion at energy companies.
Some women say that going to human resources only makes matters worse. One woman who asked to be identified only as Sarah says she endured “nonstop” sexual harassment while working as a fracking engineer in Pennsylvania and Texas. She received unsolicited pictures of co-workers’ penises and texts from unknown numbers asking for pictures of her breasts. She reported one supervisor who constantly made sexually inappropriate remarks, but the company’s human resources department “swept it under the rug.” She says her supervisor wasn’t fired, and Sarah was moved to a new crew, where she says her work was constantly questioned. “If anyone runs to HR, they get moved and end up in worse situations,” she says. “Basically, you become a pariah.”
Sexual harassment in the oil industry is prevalent from the dust-blown oil fields to gleaming corporate offices, according to a Houston-based oil professional who also asked to remain namless. While working at Schlumberger in the early 2000s, her coworkers described the company as a group of “Bully Boys,” who made both men and women cry. She once saw a manager throw a cell phone at a young administrative assistant. “The ‘bully boy’ mentality permeates the very top to the very bottom, from the office setting to the field,” she says.
“These companies realize they have a long way to go, and realize they have to change their cultures,” says Leslie Beyer, the president of the Petroleum Equipment & Services Association, a trade group that represents Schlumberger and related companies. “After the #MeToo movement, there is an awareness that didn’t exist before that the smart companies are capitalizing on.” According to Beyer, many companies have begun to implement zero-tolerance policies regarding sexual harassment. While Mehnert of ALLY agress that oil companies have done significant work to encourage “speak up culture” and change company policies surrounding sexual harassment, she says they aren’t doing enough to train and develop proper leadership about these issues.
There’s a disconnect between corporate offices and oil fields, Mehnert says, which can delay the process of handling sexual harassment claims, especially during economic downturns. When oil prices drop, and companies downsize their human resources departments, internal investigations into harassment claims can go unidentified or unnoticed by corporate managers
Saidman says she was harassed on multiple rigs before Schlumberger even started to work on her complaints. Less than a year after Saidman was assaulted, she told her coworker Geno Aguilar that a strange man had entered her trailer the night before but left when he realized he was in the wrong room. The experience rattled her. According to documents filed in a lawsuit against the company, Aguilar reportedly took the story and ran with it, telling a truck driver, “She likes strange men coming into her room at all hours of the night. The more she screams, the more she wants it.”
Five days later, she says she heard male coworkers joking about how she “wanted strange men to come into her room during the night” and she “preferred them uninvited.” That afternoon, she received a text from an unknown number asking to “get a room” with her. The anonymous texter added, “Geno said it was okay.”
“There was no escape from the living hell these men created,” Saidman says. Her trailer door didn’t have locks, so she worried constantly that a coworker might enter her room and rape her. She couldn’t eat or sleep. As soon as her shifts were over, she hid in her room. Worried about her deteriorating mental health, she filed a formal complaint about Aguilar to Schlumberger. A few weeks later, she was fired for minor infractions, a move she says was in retaliation for coming forward. Saidman is now fighting the company in court as the primary plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against Schlumberger.
“I’m not the first woman at Schlumberger to experience this,” she says. “They don’t come forward because they don’t want to torpedo everything they have worked for.”
Saidman is joined in the lawsuit, which was filed in June in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, by Jessica Cheatham, another female field engineer. Cheatham says she also experienced sexual harassment at the company. While working on a Texas oil rig in 2018, one of her first days in the field, Cheatham says her supervisor Kenny Fusilier told her, “If you mess up this, I am going to bend you over my knee and spank you, and you will like it.” Cheatham was shocked, but she says Fusilier just laughed and repeated, “You’ll like it.” Then, she says he turned the trailer television to the Playboy channel.
The next day, Cheatham says Fusilier instructed her on a part of her job by using graphic language about genitalia, mimicking and describing the motions of sex. All the while, he kept asking her to respond, and he repeated, “You know all about this.”
Two days later, Cheatham met with the company’s human resources representative— the same man Saidman had complained to previously. “Guys just do that,” he reportedly told her. He admitted that sexual harassment was inappropriate, but he hedged, according to the lawsuit: “This is a man’s industry, so we know it’s likely to happen.”
After reporting a number of other incidents, Cheatham says she returned home in 2019 and she wasn’t staffed on any rigs for months. In November, she was offered a trainee spot in Alaska, but it was a demotion in both rank and pay, halving her previous income. After months at home without work, she felt forced to resign. She left the company in January.
“Schlumberger took my voice away,” Cheatham says. “They took a piece of me. And every day I’m trying to get it back.”
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