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


  1. In 1978, after affirmative action for minorities had begun narrowing the gap for blacks in the construction trades, President Carter set the first hiring goals for women in federally-funded construction jobs. The goal, astoundingly enough, was to have a quarter of the construction work force be female by 2000. Cheryl's blog post reports, among other things, that this goal is far from reality even in 2009. There are lots of reasons, but one--I submit--is that affirmative action has been under attack since the 1970's and its reach curtailed rather than expanded. In that fight, white women have been ambivalent, often siding with white men, in viewing it as unfair "reverse discrimination." While women of all colors have gained in certain types of employment, and gained from forward-thinking firms such as the one Cheryl describes, discrimination in the construction trades is unlikely to end without affirmative action enforced by the federal government.

  2. Good reporting Cheryl. As one who picks colorful shardsout of my scalp from the stained glass ceiling in the church, I agreethat this is stil a big problem in a patriarchal culture and church. We've come a long way with many mile to go. Women need men to join the endeavor with spirit, clout and compassion for justice.

  3. As a retired (male) high school teacher, I worked in an environment where, for the most part, women and men shared the same opportunities. There certainly wasn't the kind of harassment that Cheryl describes in the construction industry and other businesses. In retrospect, however, none of the dept. chairs or administrators at the time were women. When I retired, the English dept. chair was assumed by a woman (my recommendation) in my dept. The same thing occurred in the math dept. And now the system has a female superintendent of schools

  4. My step daughter went through the entire years long process of training to become an electrician, only to have to decide to quit just before taking the final exam because her fellow male co-workers wouldn't deal with her slowness. Her very meticulousness and concentration on doing the best possible job worked AGAINST her becoming a "viable" electrician! Her goal had been to go into business for herself and do electrical jobs for other women, who would welcome her as a female, AND accept her "limitations". We are proud of the work she has done for us, in a perfectly acceptable way and time frame.

  5. Unfortunately there will always be men that look at women as inferior. No amount of training classes can change some attitudes. The other problem are the women that use their bodies to get perks and their fellow co-workers suffer because of the unfair attention paid to the offending woman, and believe me, there are plenty of those out there who get by on more than just their smiles. Doing a good job and being dedicated are not recognized for the employee that doesn't play the game. This happens in every industry, not just the jobs that are normally given to men. The men are threatened by the women that want to do the jobs that they are doing. This is the 21st Century. You can be anything you want to be.

  6. Congratulations, Cheryl. Your blog is fantastic! I like the way you selected one aspect of Susan Eisenberg's talk – the concrete/glass ceiling - and analyzed that in more more detail. You even suggested a way of attacking the problem using stimulus funds. I hope the right people are listening.

    Have you read Why so Slow? The Advancement of Women by Virginia Valian? She looks at the opposite extreme to that faced by Susan Eisenberg, concentrating on women in the academic and professional workforce and shows how small, subtle discriminations can add up to a big effect. She attributes this to the gender schemas which we all build up in our brains and affect our relationships with others, especially those we don't know, but even those we do. All of her analysis is backed up by solid statistics or experiments and illustrated with interesting anecdotes. Here is a good review I just found: cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/reviews/why-so-slow/

    I don't know how TOP ever survived without a blog. It is truly “Thoughtful, Original and Provocative, Women Exploring New Perspectives”! You have set a really high standard for yourself with this first posting! I look forward eagerly to your future postings.

  7. Great post, Cheryl! I would add that the indoctrination starts virtually at birth, in the conflicting messages we give to boys and girls. We dressed our daughter in primary colors when she was a baby. One day, we were in a store, and a woman commented on how adorable our son was. We gently informed the woman that our child was a girl, and she became indignant, saying, "Well, how was I supposed to tell? You dressed her like a boy!" Role expectations are set so young. In pre-school, children learn that boys can be very physical and more assertive, but not girls (even in the best programs, in my experience, and mostly on a tacit level). My daughter is in 4th grade now, and the boys HATE that she plays kickball with them during recess. I mean, they HATE it, and ridicule her mercilessly. So much for the diversity training and theme of this year. (We have a long way to go...)

  8. Great post, Cheryl! Your analysis is cogent and passionate. When will the construction professions realize that they're only hurting themselves by closing the door to half the population?

  9. second attempt at a post. I have been in the construction industry for the past 40 years with the past 20 as a general contractor. I have found that women on the jobsite have a civilizing influence, unfortunately only a handful of jobs have seen their presence. My own exposure to gender, ethnic, racial and other biases has probably been greater than most since ours is a predominately blue collar industry. My normal response to my co-workers is to channel their dislikes in a different direction. My particular bias is against "suits" (bankers, insurance agents, lawyers, etc). Generally they have no real-life reason for their prejudices. But i have yet to meet a person who hasn't gone head to head with some bureaucratic nincompoop. Unfortunately now is not a very good time to break into the construction industry. Perhaps if someone is looking for a good use for stimulus money they should consider going to school in a construction management field. Then they could change the playing field from within . We would all be better off for their effort.

  10. I think TOP is an excellent forum where women can discuss their issues.

    The comments about glass ceiling are right on. Women have to prove that they are equal to men in getting a job. When did men have to prove that they were as good as women! They should have to prove that they are as accepting, understanding and competent.