Delorie Walsh was determined to break gender barriers and become a landman, a position she achieved. But for the past 16 years, she has struggled to prove she was a victim of gender discrimination and retaliation at the Alberta oil company where she once worked.
Now, the courts have sided with her.
After Ms. Walsh filed two provincial human rights complaints and plodded through several appeals, the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta ruled in her favour last month and ordered Mobil Oil Canada, now part of Exxon Mobil Corp.'s Canadian arm, to return to the human rights panel and determine a remedy.
"Their actions towards Ms. Walsh were, at best, insensitive and, at worst, cruel," Mr. Justice Alan Macleod wrote in his ruling.
Ms. Walsh couldn't be more thrilled with the decision. But her long ordeal has proved to her and her lawyer that women still struggle to be seen as equal to their male colleagues.
"I really, really loved my job. I thoroughly enjoyed the work that I did. I didn't like the way I was treated by Mobil," the 50-year-old resident of Olds, Alta., said in an interview yesterday.
A spokesman for Exxon Mobil said the company has not yet decided whether to appeal the judge's decision.
"We are aware of the decision and we're assessing it," Pius Rolheiser said.
Working as a junior clerk at the company in the late 1980s, Ms. Walsh studied to become a landman, or land agent, a person who helps negotiate agreements between landowners and oil companies.
At the time, no women were working in that position at the company. Court documents say that Ms. Walsh was told by one of her supervisors: "No damn woman is going to be a surface landman while I am working here."
But she succeeded in securing a job as a land agent, the first woman to do so in the company, even though she was paid less than her male counterparts and classified at a lower position.
Ms. Walsh was later offered a position in Olds. But she was put on a three-month probation, she had to commute to Olds from Calgary on her own time, and she did not receive a company vehicle or an increase to her salary, conditions she told the court no man would have had to face.
She believes that despite her salary increases she was paid 50 per cent less than her male counterparts. (Ms. Walsh declined to divulge her salary or that of others because details still need to be worked out when the two sides settle the matter at the human rights commission.)
She filed a complaint to the Alberta Human Rights Commission in August of 1991, alleging gender discrimination in the workplace. She was fired in early 1995, and filed a second complaint six months later, August of 1995. She alleged that her dismissal was related to her refusal to withdraw her first complaint.
Court documents say that Ms. Walsh was commended for her work less than one month before being fired.
In December of 2005, she won a partial victory when the human rights commission ruled Ms. Walsh faced gender discrimination. But it said she was not fired in retaliation for filing a complaint.
In the latest decision, however, the judge noted: "An analysis of the events leading up to Ms. Walsh's termination leads me to the conclusion that the only rational explanation for Mobil's actions is that they were in part retaliatory."
The ordeal has taken a financial and psychological toll on Ms. Walsh and her family. She has done some contract work in the oil patch, and this past year taught at Olds College in the land agent and land administration program. She hopes that after this matter is settled, she can return to work on surface land rights.
"I never thought it would take so long. And now there's an end in sight," she said.
Ms. Walsh was unwilling to back down from her first complaint.
"If I don't stand up to say something's wrong, there's no change. People have to stand up for what they believe needs to be changed. Unfortunately, I'm still seeing the same problems 16 years later. Women are still not being paid the same as men are," she said.
Her lawyer, Shirish Chotalia, echoes the sentiment. "I think that the ruling does speak very loudly to our country ... of the gains that women still have to make. There's no doubt that women have made advances, but we have a long way to go."