Women in the Electrical Labor Force

Francine Moccio, author of Live Wire, writes on the problems women face in the electrical labor force.

As a professor of labor studies at a public university, I faced the somewhat daunting task of teaching a class on the topic of “class, race and gender” to young, mostly white, male construction workers who were my students in an electrical apprenticeship program. Upon completion of their training sponsored by their union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Local Union #3, one of the most powerful unions in the country, these young men (many of whom were beneficiaries of “father to son” sponsorship) aspired to attain good paying highly skilled jobs as master electricians, jobs that did not necessarily require professional degrees. 

Minority men and women were for the most part viewed by my electrical apprentice students as encroaching on the industry because of “government interference” due to affirmative action goals.  According to some apprentices, “women were taking the place of a guy who really needed a job.” “Women are for after work,” indicated one young man, demonstrating how polarized gender relations are still extant among highly skilled electricians and tradesmen.      

I also encountered a paradox among unionized electricians. Despite the strong degree of racism in society, minority men are somewhat more accepted in the industry and craft trade while women despite nearly forty years of policy reform and advocacy, only still constitute 2% and women of color are even scarcer. I wrote Live Wire to better understand why after all these years of litigation, advocacy, and policy reforms, sex segregation in this occupation and trade have endured.  I wanted to point out how labor relations between the union and  its employers, the Electrical Contractors Association (ECA), factored into the degree to which women, as well as other new groups were accepted into the electricians’ trade.  I thought that perhaps unraveling the reasons for sex segregation in this industry and occupation, I could also contribute more broadly to facilitating women’s entrance into other predominantly male jobs and professions.

While women have made strides in other previously male dominated professions like medicine and law, highly skilled blue-collar occupations and industries, as well as professional fields of science and technology have remained fiercely segregated. In order to find out why, I felt compelled to ask the following questions: What are the organizational and subtle conditions that maintain this type of tenacious occupational segregation? Can strict economic explanations satisfy an answer to why this exclusion of women is so severe; or is it necessary to also examine the customs and traditions of the industry and occupation, the institutional structures and organizational behavior that shapes gender relationships among workers or employees on the ground.  In addition, I asked how do formal and informal cultural networks at work, as well as the interrelationship of gender relations at work and home influence the speed or slowness of integration.  

Throughout my research, I conducted in-depth interviews with the major stakeholders in the industry, that is, contractors, unionists, workers, and trainees. I always began these interviews with the same question:  Why is it such a big deal about a handful of women coming into this occupation?  I also felt compelled to find out whether or not every new work group experienced similar resistance as women, for example, African-Americans and Jews. Much to my surprise, responses to my inquiries required a book length explanation. 

How could I proceed to identify a method that would maximize my understanding? Thus, I examined the history of fraternal societies and the role they play in building union solidarity, the external influence of social movements of equality, the interconnectedness of workers’ masculine identity at work and home, and internal stratification among electricians and members of the union brotherhood along the lines of sex, race and occupational skill. 

What light could be shed by this case study of women’s decade-long efforts to break into the electricians’ trade and union brotherhood on broader questions of discrimination at work and the role of women in unions? In addition, how can we better identify the factors that still cause such strong resistance of new work groups such as women into breaking into other predominantly male jobs and professions? Here is one lesson I learned from writing Live Wire: advocates, judges, legislators, unionists, educators and anyone concerned with efforts to advance workplace inclusion need to identify and address both the organizational and subtle forms of discrimination women encounter in any industry and occupation. In addition, it is critical to understand the history and nature of labor relations in an industry and occupation, including its organizational networks, the forms that occupational sex-typing take and the industry and union traditions among male employers, unionists and workers that can influence the reproduction of sex segregation.      

Writing from the Heart

Allison Carey, author of On the Margins of Citizenship, explains how her sister’s needs prompted her to write about disability rights. 1934_reg

In 1971, when my sister was born with Down Syndrome, the state did not yet recognize the right of children with disabilities to attend school, nor were there many services offered in the community for people with disabilities. During her lifetime, much has changed, but much has remained the same. Even after the passage of an assortment laws to secure rights for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, my sister still has difficulty finding integrated activities that will accommodate her disability; there is no public transportation where she lives to facilitate community integration; she has few friends of her age and little access to social recreation; her job options have largely been unfulfilling to her and her jobs have never lasted long; and, as someone who lives in the community with my father, she is not deemed to be in “emergency need” for services and therefore is largely ineligible for them. What then do her “rights” do to actually empower her or improve her quality of life?

On the Margins of Citizenship: Intellectual Disability and Civil Rights in Twentieth Century America emerged out of my growing interest in the Disability Rights Movement, and my awareness of its largely unrealized potential for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. In this work I examine how rights have been conceptualized for people with intellectual disabilities throughout the 20th century, and why particular groups have fought for or against specific rights. Throughout this century, many tensions arose as Americans considered issues of rights for this population. For example, American policy tends to stray away from the provision of social rights for adults, yet the absence of social rights diminishes the effective exercise of other rights such as the rights to vote and to assemble. The provision of social rights tends to be reserved for people defined as incompetent or “needy”, yet this conceptualization undermines their status as worthy and active citizens. The American system of rights tends to prioritize rights that offer freedom to citizens to act as they wish (e.g. to worship as one wishes, to assemble with whom one wishes), yet people with intellectual disabilities are often deemed incompetent and dependent and therefore unable to exercise rights based on freedom.

This analysis draws upon a relational-practice approach to citizenship to argue that rights do not offer clear guarantees. Instead, rights offer potential resources to be claimed and negotiated, and the outcomes of the dynamic process of trying to exercise rights are highly dependent upon the immediate social context and the larger system of social stratification. For people with intellectual disabilities, who so often occupy a social position with little power, their “rights” are often undercut as they are defined by other citizens and by the courts as biologically or intellectually unable to exercise rights, as a threat to the rights of others, and as undeserving of the privilege and influence that are bestowed through the exercise of rights.

Therefore, it is unfortunately not surprising that the 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Olmstead v. L.C. – a decision which found that unnecessary isolation and institutionalization constituted discrimination on the basis of disability – is marked with little success towards deinstitutionalization and instead the filing of a court case in Pennsylvania, charging that the state has yet to comply with the Olmstead decision. People with developmental and intellectual disabilities find that even after their rights are formally established, these rights are undermined and must be fought for again and again.

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