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.      

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