What’s the status of women in electrical contracting?

Recruiting and retaining women is widely recognized as one solution to the electrical industry labor shortage, but progress in the field is slow. A quarter century after the Department of Labor under President Jimmy Carter issued affirmative action regulation 41CFR 60, expanding President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Executive Order 11246 to “provide immediate equal opportunity for women in the construction industry,” the 6.9 percent target set for 1981 has not yet been reached in any construction trade.

The National Electrical Contractors’ Association reported that in 2001, 68 percent of all new construction companies were owned by women. But women are not actively seeking positions in electrical contracting, frustrating companies seeking to make good-faith efforts to close the gap and maximize the potential talent pool.

Nearly 64 million women were employed in 2002, with some 4 million more looking for work at any given time, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau. That translates to roughly 60 percent of women age 16 and older, and 47 percent of the total work force. The four leading occupations for women were still retail sales, secretary, elementary school teacher and registered nurse; none of the top 20 was in construction.

In the field

Out of some 815,000 electricians cited in the 2002 statistics on nontraditional occupations for women (those in which women comprise 25 percent or less of the total), only 2.4 percent (20,000) were women, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Web site of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) contains no specific statistics for women in the union labor force, and does not list a formal program to actively recruit or retain women as journeymen electricians.

Although women in the field still complain of isolation, bathroom issues and the abrasive or even hostile job site culture and behavioral standards, improvements in safety and harassment policies have resulted from legislative mandates, as well as corporate self-interest. Treating women differently is no longer considered acceptable by construction owners or by contractors, some of whom are hoping to avoid litigation and further erosion of an already tarnished public image.

Susan Eisenberg, one of the first IBEW apprentices, interviewed 28 other early tradeswomen about their experiences. Her book, “We’ll Call You If We Need You,” was published two decades after the 1978 mandate, and draws a depressing picture. “Despite many examples of tradeswomen who were skilled, conscientious and productive workers, despite many efforts … to expand the participation and retention of women, the culture and the work force composition of the traditionally male industry have remained fairly intact.”

Eisenberg observes that one tradeswoman’s performance on the job “could become cause for other women’s exclusion, but not for their inclusion.” She adds that the myth that no woman could do the work was replaced by the equally damning “Myth of the Exceptional Woman,” who was successful, but not typical of her gender.

Of the 10 electricians interviewed, six (including the author) have left the industry entirely. Only four were still employed in the industry as of 1998, and a fifth was considering a return to the trade.

Many of the first tradeswomen were attracted by the established wage parity in union construction, as well as the chance to do physical work they could take pride in while providing for their families. At a World of Working Women conference in New York City, NECA member Veronica Rose, founder and CEO of Aurora Electric Inc., the fifth-fastest growing privately held company in the industry, pointed out that women who work as union electricians are within the top 5 percent of wage earners in the country.

In 2001, 11.6 percent of working women age 16 and older belonged to unions, compared to 18.1 percent for all workers (1.275 million of the 7.05 million total employed in construction), according to the BLS Web site. In fact, women who are union members earn 30 percent more than their non-union counterparts, based on median weekly earnings data cited on the Web site of the AFL-CIO. With the highest rate of union membership, the financial incentives in construction trades should be attracting thousands of women.

So what’s the problem?

Women still received mixed reviews from employers who struggle with job site culture and resistance by male employees. One NECA member found that placing a woman electrician on a crew raised production by at least 10 percent, “because no man wants to be outworked by a woman.” Skilled journeymen electricians like Kris Rogne of Fargo, winner of the 2003 North Dakota Worker of the Year award given by Dickies Workwear, are still the exception. The 45-year-old electrician left the banking industry six years ago to improve the standard of living for herself and her three daughters, but is still the only woman in Local 1326.

Though women comprised 3.9 percent of enrollment in union electrical programs from 1989-95, the author of a study on apprenticeship training in U.S. construction (Apprenticeship Training in the U.S. Construction Industry, Cihan Bilginsoy, University of Utah Department of Economics, September 1998) stated that “with few exceptions, the participation of women in apprenticeship training in joint programs across trades is hardly satisfactory.” Of the 10 trades studied, electrician ranked fourth, below operating engineer (21.8 percent) painter (8.4 percent), and carpenter (5.6 percent).

At the other end of the spectrum, a five-year study by the Center for Women’s Business Research notes that fastest growing area of female entrepreneurship is in nontraditional fields, such as construction and transportation. The director of the Center attributed the change to recognition of women’s leadership capability, as well as a willingness by banks to extend higher levels of credit to women.

From 1992-97, women-owned construction company revenue growth (33 percent) outpaced that of male-owned firms by 9 percent, and the 6.7 percent of companies owned by women produced 7.2 percent of the total revenues. The number of people employed by women rose by 28 percent (more than three times the increase overall) and women now employ more than 10 percent of all people in the industry. Statistics are from “A Compendium of National Statistics on Women-Owned Businesses in the U.S.,” September 2001, as cited on the Women Construction Owners and Executives Resource Center Web site (www.wcoe-rc.org).

What now?

Is the organized electrical contracting industry reaching out to women, actively recruiting and retaining them? Organizations and articles related to electrical contracting often provide limited statistics, and industry culture is slow to change. “Man hours” has not yet been replaced by the more inclusive “labor hours,” for example, and industry appreciation events and meetings too often include themes and prizes more suited to men.

Major construction industry associations have been actively courting women as members, and developing them as local and national leaders. The American Subcontractors Association elected its first woman president nearly 25 years ago, and has had three others since then. NECA has not yet elected any woman to a leadership position, but it does highlight profiles of key women members on its Web site (www.neca.org). Dan Walter, NECA’s COO, noted that “participation by women in the industry is on the rise” and is confident that “it’s only a matter of time.”

Approximately 6 percent of accredited company representatives are estimated to be women, although gender is not specifically requested on membership records. Although few women hold management positions on the national staff, and none in regional offices, more success is evident at the chapter level, with women now comprising about 8 percent of chapter managers. A similar situation exists in the technical and management training functions of the association, and no study grants have been awarded to women through the foundation of the association to date.

A possible explanation for this lack of progress may be found in the fairly recent entry of women into a century-old industry, and an allowable transition period to develop the many who are active at the local level for future leadership positions. As Walters observes, “I think the association will benefit by the increased participation of women.”

Success stories

Why do women choose electrical contracting, and how do they see their roles and opportunities? Traditionally, many women follow family members into the business, or assume control when a spouse or parent retires or dies. Maryanne Cataldo began City Lights Electrical Co. Inc. of Boston in 1989, when her former employer went bankrupt, in order to service some of its key customers.

Some come from the field, such as Veronica Rose, who took off her tool belt after 25 years in the industry and started Aurora Electric Inc. in Jamaica, N.Y. Project Manager Lori Strohecker, with Morse Electric in Freeport, Ill., began as a delivery truck driver, then moved into the accounting department. Believing the industry wasn’t “quite ready for a female PM in the 1990s,” she bided her time, moved into an assistant project manager position, and finally achieved her goal.

Many of these women believe strongly in training and education, and look to NECA to provide technical and management education for themselves and their employees. They also stay involved in their industry. Rose graduated at the top of her apprenticeship class, was one of the first women to receive a New York City Master Electrician’s License, and has a college degree. Cataldo has a degree in economics and a Harvard M.B.A., and is a journeyman electrician.

Still a small fraction of the industry, they tend to be overachievers. When asked about obstacles and opportunities, as well as the role of women in the industry, they are remarkably upbeat. Strohecker worried that her lack of technical field knowledge would detract from her relationships with customers and other contractors, but found that they were willing to allow her time to research solutions. “Time has … removed a lot of obstacles for women,” she said, although there is still some occasional awkwardness at the first project meeting. She believes that women in the field still face tougher challenges.

Customer service was the key to Cataldo’s success at the beginning, and City Lights guaranteed their customers a two-hour show-up time. Snapping up accounts their competitors declined, the company focused on being dependable and doing “the impossible easily by yesterday.” With more than 70 percent repeat business, and a proven track record of completing large, difficult jobs such as the Logan Airport Baggage Handling project and work on the Boston Central Artery Tunnel, Cataldo has altered the perception that a Women’s Business Enterprise cannot handle certain types of work.

Strohecker believes that “the industry is ready for women, and that each day will see more women in key positions.” She is convinced that women are “key to company profitability,” and that experience in office positions, multitasking, and handling paperwork contributes to their value as they move to other positions.

Women in electrical contracting actively mentor and help to recruit other women. Cataldo hires women for key positions and sits on the local board of the building trades, working to recruit more women. She hopes to see NECA intensify pressure on IBEW to accept more qualified women apprentices. She looks for ways to empower her employees and give them an equity stake and share of the company’s financial success. Like so many of her peers, she believes the industry is “a great career for women, as electrical construction requires the use of your brain as well as your back.” EC

NORBERG-JOHNSON is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached at bigpeng@sbcglobal.net.