Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites


Affirmative action fizzles for women in trades

PHOTO COURTESY: JIM GOLDEN - Journey-level ironworker Angela Couture teaches a middle-schooler how to use a cutting torch.In three previous installments, the Tribune has explored the discrimination and abuse faced by Oregon women attempting to forge careers in the construction trades. In weeks one and two, Jenna Smith and other women line workers showed why there is only one working journey-level line woman left in Oregon today. Last week the Tribune looked at gains made among electricians.


Long before Jenna Smith tried to become an Oregon line worker, Susan Eisenberg was part of the first national wave of women recruited to construction trade apprenticeships in 1978, following new federal regulations and guidelines designed to guarantee women equal access.

Eisenberg, who became a journeyman electrician in Boston, later wrote a book chronicling the first women entering the trades, and now directs the On Equal Terms Project at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center.

When she breaks down the numbers nationally, Eisenberg concludes that fewer women are actually working in the trades now than during the 1980s.

The 1978 federal regulations set goals for women in construction, with oversight committees and compliance checks to make sure those affirmative action goals were met. About 7 percent of construction workers would be women, if the goals were met.

States are reporting progress, Eisenberg says, but they’re fiddling with the data. The Oregon Employment Department, for example, claims that women hold 20 percent of construction industry jobs in the state. But in fact, that data simply measures the number of women construction companies employ. Most of those women are lower-paid office workers, Eisenberg says. Also, women apprentices are being counted as journey level even though half or more will never work at journey level because they get discouraged or held back.

So what happened?

Out of favor

“Before we even graduated, the federal effort was gone,” Eisenberg says. In the 1980s, federal oversight budgets were slashed and the compliance checks mostly disappeared. A 2005 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office noted that compliance reviews had been conducted with only 4 percent of apprenticeship programs.

“They (U.S. Department of Labor) really abandoned any kind of enforcement of affirmative action,” says Vivian Price, a California State University at Dominguez Hills assistant professor who studies women in construction.

Department of Labor officials refused multiple interview requests.

Between 1970 and 1983, 2.2 percent of construction workers were women, according to data from the National Women’s Law Center. Today, that number has risen only to 2.6 percent. Officials at Oregon Tradeswomen Inc. say that Oregon is better than the national average, but still is less than 4 percent, well below the original goal.

Reform strategies

The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries certifies most of the state’s apprenticeship programs, and women’s advocates say it could use the threat of de-certification to force change.

But decertifying apprenticeship programs that don’t include women (which is just about every line apprentice program in the state) isn’t practical, says Steve Simms, Apprenticeship and Training Division Administrator for the agency, known as BOLI.

“What we’d end up doing is putting a lot of people out of work and putting the state of Oregon at a competitive disadvantage by not having enough line workers out there,” Simms says.

He recognizes that some trades, like line workers, have made little if any progress in recruiting and accepting women. And he acknowledges that waiting for women to file complaints for BOLI’s civil rights investigations won’t work. No woman line worker has filed such a complaint since Jenna Smith many years ago.

Simms says the answer is continuing to try to educate people in the construction trades as a means of changing their cultures. “We don’t give up just because we haven’t had that impact yet,” Simms says.

Looking to Washington

But in Washington state, a more aggressive approach paid dividends in the 1980s, according to Melinda Nichols, former apprenticeship program manager for the Washington Department of Labor & Industries. Nichols held a position similar to the one currently held by Simms.

Washington officials put Puget Sound Energy on a version of probation, which meant people already in the apprenticeship program could finish their work. “You can’t not have the program,” Nichols says. “But you can say no more people can come into the program until you straighten this mess out.”

Puget Sound leaders were told they had to come up with better recruitment of women and better documentation of the changes they were making if they wanted to accept new apprentices. And it mostly worked, according to Nichols. The utility invested serious money, found women for its apprenticeships, and changed the program culture enough to satisfy state Labor & Industries investigators. The probationary status lasted about a year, Nichols recalls.

“What we did was say, ‘We’ve talked to you for 10 years, and you haven’t done anything. We’re going to freeze your program,’ ” Nichols recalls. “You can’t let them continue to act like they’re doing a good faith effort when they’re not doing anything.”

BOLI could sanction unions and companies that don’t meet goals for recruiting and training women and minorities, says Keith Edwards, a longtime Oregon union electrician and president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Minority Caucus.

Edwards says that if the apprentice programs can’t seem to find women recruits, the state should take over the selection process and have an organization such as Oregon Tradeswomen responsible for finding women to become line apprentices. Then BOLI could set benchmarks to make sure the apprentice programs are graduating nearly all their recruits.

PHOTO COURTESY: LINDSAY CIMINA - These Oregon Tradeswomen pre-apprenticeship students were introduced to a variety of construction trade work in 2010.BOLI’s Simms, though not prepared to take punitive action in Oregon, says much of the resistance to change is coming from Oregon’s utilities, which employ large numbers of construction workers, including linemen. “We’re all perplexed about the right strategies for addressing the utility industries,” he says.

Jim Piro, president and CEO of Portland General Electric, says those claims are wrong, at least with his company. PGE currently employs Oregon’s only journey-level female line worker. Piro says the primary reason there aren’t more line women is that few women can handle the physical challenges of the work.

“The culture continues to evolve and change,” Piro says. “This whole idea that there’s a bias against women, I would say that’s not the case. If a woman can do the work in an environment that’s safe for everyone, they will be welcome.”

Cristi Sawtell, the only journey-level line woman ever employed by the Bonneville Power Administration, says the culture of Oregon line workers might be getting worse, not better.

“We had a lot more women in different trades at Bonneville 20 years ago than we do now,” says Sawtell, who has moved into administration at BPA. “Even the women I talk to, the electricians, they’re not seeing the environment improving.”

Male contractors make end run around diversity

Half of all the registered trade apprenticeship programs in Oregon have no women in them, says Tiffany Thompson, advocacy program manager for Oregon Tradeswomen Inc., a nonprofit that recruits and trains women for the trades.

That means four or five years from now there won’t be women in those trades mentoring and serving as role models for a new generation of women.

All the industry talk of seeking more robust recruitment programs for women amounts to window dressing, according to Thompson.

“When they are doing their recruitment, they’re not doing it in places where women would even hear about it,” she says. “I have heard many women say people flat out refuse to accept their applications. I think they have set up an environment where women won’t apply.”

Oregon companies have found it easy to get around government-mandated diversity requirements, Thompson says. One Oregon contractor sends a certified letter to Oregon Tradeswomen every year as a superficial attempt to recruit women, in her view.

“They’re trying to prove to some government agency that they are diversifying, but they don’t take anybody, and they don’t take phone calls from Oregon Tradeswomen,” Thompson says.

Through its own outreach efforts, Oregon Tradeswomen gets more than 500 women a year through its doors, mostly for informational sessions. About 100 of them complete a pre-apprenticeship program designed to ready them for full apprenticeships, by introducing them to the basics of tools and construction work. Ninety of those 100 women move on to apprenticeships.

But simply entering an apprenticeship doesn’t guarantee a woman will work in her chosen trade. The dropout rate during apprenticeships in Oregon is considerably higher for women than for men.

A few weeks ago, Thompson heard from a woman electrical apprentice who claimed her foreman goaded her into touching a hot wire while using a soldering iron.

“He was teasing, and she ended up burning her hand,” Thompson says. The apprentice complained to Oregon Tradeswomen, but not up the chain of command to the contractor who employed her that week.

“For a lot of women who experience these things, it’s a choice between staying on a job that might only be lasting a week or making a complaint and possibly impacting their career forever.”