Exxon accused of bunker mentality as investors get rough

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The Independent Online

It looks like golf clubs at dawn. Rex Tillerson, chief executive of ExxonMobil, is set to duel with the tireless women's rights campaigner Martha Burk at the oil giant's annual shareholder meeting this week, over Exxon's sponsorship of the Masters Golf Tournament.

The world's biggest oil group is accused of breaking its own rules against sex discrimination because the tournament is held at the home of the Augusta National golf club - which does not admit women.

Ms Burk is flying into Dallas for Wednesday's meeting, which should prove a lively event. As well as the sex discrimination vote, Exxon is fighting off another dozen shareholder resolutions, many fulminating against the retirement bonus given to the former chief executive, Lee Raymond, who left at the end of last year.

Augusta's resistance to opening up to women has for years infuriated Ms Burk, who is chair of the National Council of Women's Organisations. The club's membership list reads like a Who's Who of American boardrooms. Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, and Jack Welch, the former General Electric boss, are among those who have taken advantage of the networking opportunities on offer at the clubhouse, as has Mr Raymond. He set up Exxon's three-year sponsorship deal with the Masters in 2005.

Ms Burk's polite lobbying received little more than bemused smiles or sarcasm from the club, so this year she is asking Exxon shareholders to demand a review of the company's sponsorship policies. "Would the company sponsor an event held at a venue that barred African-Americans, Jews or homosexuals from membership?" she asks.

Mr Tillerson is refusing to hold a review and will tell shareholders that the sponsorship does not breach the company's sex discrimination ban. The Masters has "provided a unique opportunity to promote the company's messages, including ExxonMobil's support for education, to its wide international audience", he says.

Ms Burk admits her resolution is unlikely to be passed, but hopes she can generate some momentum for her campaign. She has dismissed Exxon's justification as "silly and ridiculous". "It educates the public that they don't care about sex discrimination."