Retired electrician discusses discrimination, harassment in trade work
Prof. Susan Eisenberg and filmmaker Mallory Newman share their projects addressing in a multimedia presentation
Resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center and retired electrician with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Susan Eisenberg held a collaborative lecture with filmmaker Mallory Newman on March 18 called “Solidarity: How Do Construction Unions Move from Exclusion to Inclusion?” Prof. Harleen Singh (WGS), the new director of the WSRC, introduced Eisenberg.
Eisenberg spoke about entering the electrician trade in 1979 under the Carter administration through Executive Order 12138, which required federal agencies to take affirmative action to include women in all businesses, including construction. Through President Carter’s affirmative action program, Eisenberg and six other women began an electrician apprenticeship through the IBEW, an electricians union serving North America and several South American countries. Eisenberg became part of the first class of women to graduate from the program.
According to Eisenberg, starting in 1979, 25% of all construction apprenticeships were allotted for women. Commenting on her fellow female apprentices, Eisenberg said, “We were gonna make it together or be picked off one by one. We didn’t always like each other but knew we had to stick together.”
When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, Eisenberg described the new administration’s cuts to affirmative action enforcement, which fell to a third of what it had been under Carter. As a result, the recruitment of women to construction apprenticeships declined.
The United States Department of Labor, only requires there to be roughly 7% of women in the construction workforce - despite that threshold being based on the 1970 census.Eisenberg said that women do meet this threshold, as 7% of the entire construction workforce today, but “Sometimes you feel as if you have to look at your watch and check what year it is,” she said.
While the number of women employed in construction — which includes carpentry, plumbing and electrical work — are at a record-high, Eisenberg explained that “a hostile workplace in a dangerous environment like construction can be fatal.” She described how some foremen, or construction site managers, refused to train women. There were instances of people setting up “accidents'' to frame women, touching them inappropriately and threatening them. One of Eisenberg’s female co-workers, for instance, had a male co-worker urinate on her car. Eisenberg said, “the men working in construction view it as the Wild West. Anything goes.” Reading the poem “The Jobsite Marksman'' from her poetry collection “Stanley’s Girl,” Eisenberg recited the line, “He’s just old/young/a nitwit/harmless.”
Responding to the workplace hostility, Eisenberg was a leader in the first National Women’s Conference, where 200 women put together a set of recommendations addressed to the IBEW. Eisenberg described it as a “model of tradeswomen knowing what they wanted and needed.” One provision passed at the conference was to have trained, on-site monitors to report harassment or discrimination.
Eisenberg played an audio clip of Nancy Mason, a site monitor in Seattle, Washington. Mason said that “[the foremen] kept such close track of when women came late but the ‘good old boys’ could come 10 minutes late every day.” In the recording, Mason added that however minimally, the culture has changed for the better: “If someone asks me to look at a job site something is amiss. I think it’s amazing to have a white male come tell me to stop by. Usually someone is being harassed.”
Eisenberg added, “Identical treatment isn’t equal treatment: if I need an eight foot ladder and you need a six foot one to do a job, and we both get six foot ladders, we’re being treated identically but not equally.”
Additionally, some participants at the event said that women in construction are not always informed about the same local job opportunities as men. Amanda Green, an event attendee and construction manager in New Hampshire, said, “I was shocked when I went to a site and saw there were no female workers. You’d make a lot of money doing line work over here in New Hampshire,” to which another attendee added, “And that’s why it’s kept a secret.”
While the industry must continue to make progress, Eisenberg demonstrated her love for the field, remarking, “It starts with a vision. You have a foreman (manager’s) meeting where everyone troubleshoots the plan, and eventually it gets done. To look at our power grid and infrastructure and see ourselves as people who created that is very powerful.”
U.S. Marine Veteran Mallory Newman, a guest speaker at the event, then showed her film “Uneven Ground.” This documentary features Eisenberg and interviews with women in construction in order to highlight the discrimination and harassment that takes place in the field, Newman said. Newman commented that one woman plumber featured was able to buy a house in the Bay Area of California with the money she made from construction, and her three daughters are all now plumbers as well. Another woman, speaking to her children through the camera, said “I’m proud of me. Be proud of me.”
Eisenberg has spoken at the International Labor Convention in Geneva and is currently working on a project called “On Equal Terms,” which interviews women in occupations from which they have historically been excluded. Her book “We’ll Call You If We Need You” was published in 1998.