Women still breaking barriers to training, jobs in the trades Bias, nepotism bar women from apprenticeships. Working women

April 22, 1991|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- The battle continues to break down barriers that prevent women from getting and keeping good-paying jobs in the skilled trades.

And that includes lack of entry to apprenticeship programs, discrimination in hiring and sexual harassment -- among the latter, "sexy" posters.

Lois Robinson, a welder since 1977 at the Jacksonville Shipyards Inc. in Florida, says pinups in the workplace send a "message" from male colleagues that it's a man's world and women should stay out.

Robinson, who claims she was "constantly bombarded" with frontal nude posters of women in the shipyard's machine shop, filed a discrimination suit in 1986 against the company and two managers. In January, a federal judge ruled that pornography in the workplace violates Title 7 of the U.S. Civil Rights Act.

Discrimination against tradeswomen begins at the apprenticeship level, says Alison Wetherfield, attorney with the National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York.

Wetherfield, who represented Robinson, and other women's employment advocates are focusing on helping women get into programs that train them as welders, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters and equipment operators.

"Serving a union apprenticeship is the key to entering and making a living in the trades," said Wetherfield. Apprenticeship programs, ranging from one to four years, pay well even while you learn. But women represent only 7 percent of all apprentices in the country, Wetherfield says.

"The low figure is due to rampant bias against women, nepotism and narrow advertising of programs," she said.

Wetherfield and 25 tradeswomen recently testified on the lack of women in apprenticeship programs before the New York City Human Rights Commission. They portrayed the difficulty of getting into programs, and once in them, of "blatant" sexual harassment from sexual advances to lack of restroom facilities.

The attorney faults federal and state regulatory agencies, contractors and unions "for doing nothing to stamp out discrimination." Today, however, as the federal government is trying to formalize training programs nationwide, the Labor Department's Bureau of Apprenticeship Training has established outreach programs in some 100 cities to recruit women and minorities for apprenticeship programs.

The Labor Department also has issued a special initiative to increase the number of women in the skilled trades through stricter enforcement of anti-discrimination laws governing federal contractors.

Judith Kurtz, senior staff attorney for Equal Rights Advocates, a non-profit agency in San Francisco, says these efforts are long overdue. Kurtz, in-house council for Tradeswomen Inc., a national association for blue-collar women, says that goals and timetables to get women into apprenticeship programs in California were established in 1978.

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