27 October 2009

Hostility Holds Up Women & Progress

Concrete Ceiling
Susan Eisenberg, master electrician, author of We’ll Call You If We Need You, talked Thursday about the hazards she and other women faced in the construction trades from men who wanted them off the job: explicit sexual graffiti, stolen tools, not being assigned to jobs, being thrown down staircases, shoved or even raped. Eisenberg was taken off a job for her own safety after she protested against a party that would bring a stripper to the site.
She eventually quit because she couldn’t keep paying the price to do the job she’d trained so hard to do. The trauma continues; she’s blocked out some of the abuses she endured because they’re so painful to remember.
No wonder that, despite the fact that women comprise nearly half the U.S. workforce, only 3% of construction workers are female. They can’t break through the concrete ceiling to make it out of the basement.
Glass Ceiling
These figures from the blue collar world sounded eerily familiar. In the white collar world of large accounting and consulting firms where I worked in the first half of the 1990s, roughly 3% of the partners, the people at the top, were women. And yes, you guessed it. Close to 50% of entry level hires were women and had been for over a decade. Women had made it up from the basement to equal employment at the lowest levels, but the higher echelons remained hidden behind cigar smoke.
I joined a team of facilitators who trained partners and managers of one of these large firms to look at what created the glass ceiling. I’ll never forget one man, a partner in charge of an office, who’d been through our workshop twice. He said he finally understood that women rarely succeeded in the firm because “the environment was corrosive to them.”
Whether the form of corrosion hurts a woman’s body, her psyche or her chances to manage the big accounts, it still eats away at her. Eventually, she leaves.
What It Takes To Drill Through
In the 15 years since that accounting firm with thousands of accountants, lawyers and consultants began their Women’s Initiative, they’ve increased their percentage of women partners to nearly 20%. Top management committed to concrete, consistent actions to change the culture that held women back.
They hired outside experts to train management from the top down. They changed performance reviews and created specific mentoring systems to make sure women were, unlike most of Eisenberg’s electricians, apprenticed to experts. They made sure the men who took colleagues and clients to strip joints were stopped.
It took years, money and hard calls when the backlash against all the attention paid to women turned some men more obviously hostile. The other big firms, to stay competitive, have tagged along and the industry’s clients, as well as women, have benefited.
What will it take for one trade, perhaps electricians, to realize they’re hurting themselves by shutting the door in women’s faces? How can they do the best job or progress toward the future when half the population is excluded from the talent pool? What union will be farseeing, ethical and strong enough to level the playing field for women?
These are important questions for the construction industry now scheduled to receive major infusions of stimulus money. I wonder—why not tie the funds to cleaning up the toxic environment for women in the trades?
—Cheryl Suchors

25 October 2009


Welcome to TOP's brand new blog!

Cheryl Suchors is now taking on the task of writing a blog on the topic of the week, starting with how we might respond to bullying. This will be followed by postings on the stereotyping of women and the evolving meaning of feminism. We look forward to hearing what she has to say. We are hoping to stimulate a lively discussion around these issues and that the blog will provide a forum for the women of TOP and the wider community. So if you want to add your two bits to what Cheryl has said, please post your comments.

Susan Nulsen