Hammering out tough new turf

March 02, 1992|By Wil S. Hylton | Wil S. Hylton,Staff Writer

Cindy Gail Konits' pictures make viewers think twice about sexual stereotypes.

On display at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, her exhibit of 40 black and white photographs depicts 23 working women in fields historically dominated by men. The show, "The Best Woman for the Job," introduces women in fields such as construction, railroad engineering and steelworking, which the photographer hopes will expose viewers to non-traditional career options for women and "show young women that it can be done."

Exhibited through March 31 as part of Women's History Month, the portraits are accompanied by brief statements expressing the obstacles and challenges of working in these fields. "You have to put blinders on to a certain extent as far as what men's reaction will be," explained Ms. Konits, who has been documenting women in non-traditional jobs since 1990, "and you have to work hard to prove that you're a real good worker -- and a real team worker."

The museum chose to present the exhibit to give the women recognition and shine the spotlight on the less-celebrated advocates of women's equality.

These women have opened many doors for other women, said the museum's assistant director, Ann Steele, "to make a niche for themselves in a field that's traditionally male."

Ms. Konits said, "I think that we're in a sort of transition period as far as women getting jobs in these fields. The numbers are still small even though we all thing, 'Women can get jobs where they want,' I think that by seeing it, it reminds you that there are still a few (women) there -- that we still have a way to go. It reminds you that just because (the opportunity) is there, it doesn't mean it's easy for these women."

Nearly all of the profiled women faced difficulties being included by co-workers upon entering their jobs, Ms. Konits said, but all were soon accepted as members of the team, as the men learned "how to work with a woman and the women proved that they were there to do the work." In the end, Ms. Konits said, learning to work together is what ensures equal treatment.

Sharon Eder, whom Ms. Konits regrets only being able to profile under one profession, doubles as a carpenter by day and a private detective by night. Working as a carpenter for seven years, she has faced difficulty being hired for some jobs, often being told that a woman could not handle the work. At her last job site, she was nearly denied a position by the boss at first, she remembered, "and then seven weeks later he made me a foreman!"

Ms. Eder believes her successful performance on the job has helped other women work as carpenters. The best way to teach people that women can work as well as men, she said, is "me getting out there and not only proving that I could do the work, but that I could be a boss, too." As an indication of progress, she noted that in the past year she has worked with more women than in her previous six years as a carpenter.

"I think [the photographic display] will open eyes in seeing that it doesn't matter what sex you are. I think it will help tremendously," said steelworker Kathy Damico, who is also profiled in the exhibit. During her 16 years on the job -- as one of only two women in the mechanical department at Bethlehem Steel -- she initially experienced difficulties, but co-workers gradually became more understanding, she said. Working beside men proved to them that she could do the work. "It kind of broke the barrier," she said.

The goal of the exhibit is to show audiences the struggle these women are experiencing to gain equality at work, Ms. Konits said. "Their access to the jobs of their choice is actually very limited because men simply don't know how to work with a woman. The women in these photographs are teaching men on a day-to-day basis how to work with a woman."

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