Rosie the Riveter never wanted to quit her job. A 1944 survey showed that most of the 2.9 million women in the high-paying, non-traditional work force during World War II wanted to stay. But when the war had been won, women who had been an essential part of wartime production were channeled back to "women's work"--clerical jobs, domestic service and the like.
Today, apart from progress in professions such as law and medicine, women remain overwhelmingly concentrated in low-paying occupations. More than one-third of all employed women work in clerical jobs. Full-time women workers earn a median income of $16,000, compared to full-time men workers' $25,000.
A House subcommittee recently held hearings on women in the skilled, blue-collar trades. Women who had pioneered in such trades as carpentry and heavy equipment operation in the 1970s testified that when they first entered their field, they believed many more women would follow.
They had good reason for their belief. In 1978 the Department of Labor established regulations requiring goals and timetables designed to increase women's participation in the trades; an immediate 20% goal for women was set for apprenticeship. (Apprenticeship is paid, on-the-job training, the pathway into most of the skilled trades.) A more modest 6.9% goal was set for women in each craft on federally funded construction sites.
But there was no second wave. The Reagan Administration refused to enforce the regulations. By 1987 women in the skilled trades were practically invisible, less than 2% of the work force in most of these highly paid jobs.
It is not that there are no women ready to do the work. Advocacy organizations like Vermont's STEP-UP for Women, Boston's Women in the Building Trades and Tradeswomen of Philadelphia prepare women stuck in low-paying, dead-end jobs to enter the trades. They report that they have to turn away applicants. In New York City, NEW (Non-traditional Employment for Women) has helped hundreds of women--more than 80% of the women "hard hats" in the city--go from welfare to the hiring hall.
It's not that there is no work. Construction is booming in Los Angeles, Boston, Maine and in many other cities and states. About 119,000 mason jobs will be vacant over the next five years.
The few women who make it through the door suffer from the effects of job isolation and sexual harassment. In job interviews, they are asked insulting questions about what their husbands will think of their working in construction, who will mind their children, or why they can't find something else to keep them busy.
A member of the Laborers' Union, recently off welfare and delighted at the chance to support her six children, testified, "You must always do everything the hard way. Even though everyone was always working in teams, I almost all the time had to work alone. Instead of being able to use a dolly as the men did to move Masonite, I had to lift and carry it from one end of the hall or to other floors by myself."
Sexual harassment is common, including insults about a woman worker's sexual preference, sexually explicit graffiti and peepholes in the women's locker rooms. Unequal training and job-rotation opportunities also plague the few women who finally are hired.
A California study shows that one-third of women who leave the trades do so because of sexual harassment. In San Francisco, organizations have had to institute occupational-stress counseling to help women stay on the job. The 1978 Department of Labor regulations required trade employers receiving federal funding to hire at least two women when possible, and mandated a working environment free of harassment, intimidation and coercion. These regulations, like the ones establishing goals and timetables, have never been enforced.
The Department of Labor's own studies prove that goals and timetables have worked in the maritime and coal-mining industries and were exceeded on the Alaskan pipeline, where more than 2,500 women worked as operating engineers, Teamsters and laborers. Yet an official told the subcommittee the labor department still preferred the "glove" to the "bat" approach.
It's time to take the gloves off. The history of our equal employment opportunity efforts shows that employers respond to serious enforcement efforts, not to the kid-glove treatment. It is outrageous that the Administration is still not planning to enforce 10-year-old regulations. It is unconscionable to ask women to wait any longer. The 20% goal for women in apprenticeship should be implemented immediately and updated annually. The 6.9% goal for women on federally-funded sites must be raised.
Women should not have to put up with insulting interviews, poor-quality training or energy-draining harassment while on the job. They should not have to choose between a paycheck and freedom from intimidation. It's been 45 years since Rosie the Riveter was sent home. It's time to break down the barriers that keep women from full participation in the work force. They need the work and the country needs them.