“The Talk”

Just because it’s the law doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Boys will be boys, right? (Wink, wink! Guffaw, guffaw!) In this male dominated world of skilled trades, I have mixed feelings about the sexual harassment training the IBEW foists upon its apprentices. As soon as the topic came up in our formal training, a tangible discomfort smothered the room. My class has four women and 22 men and all of a sudden, nobody was looking up or offering personal stories from the field. After some awkward silence, one guy shared experience from his military time: “Yeah, we had the one girl who was all loud. She was like one of the guys, ya know? And then she got a bad review, so right after that she made harassment charges and some of the guys got disciplined!”

Great. Thanks. What we’ve just learned through this guy’s tale (which was probably missing some facts) is that girls can twist the statute around into punitive measures, and that most allegations of sexual harassment are probably bogus or coming from somebody who is just “over-sensitive.”

The formal information presented to us was spot-on. We learned how harassment was not limited to women (oh, excuse me – I mean “girls“) and how men usually don’t need to censor themselves if they behave professionally. Harassment needs to either be unwelcomed (therefore putting some degree of responsibility on the offended party) OR so blatantly offensive that it crosses the “reasonable person” threshold. However carefully and fact-ridden the information was presented, though, it didn’t eliminate the walking-on-eggshells feelings that arose. This places women (I mean girls) in a complex first impressions category: 1) can we do the same amount of work as our male counterparts? and 2) will we squeal “sexual harassment!!!” at any and all jokes or candid conversation?

One apprentice told us his work site required a cultural sensitivity and harassment training certification before he was issued issued his security badge. This is common for large sites like hospitals or federal buildings. He rolled his eyes in disbelief as he said, “Yeah – excessive staring is counted as harassment! You cannot hold eye contact for more than three seconds!” So we talked about the possible intention behind this rule: don’t leer, right? Now we’re in the realm of common courtesy. Yet most of the guys thought it an onerous micromanagement in behavior. And women (I mean girls) shoulder the burden and the resentment for this perceived micromanagement. This is what happens when sexism in culture can’t evolve beyond rules and regulations that extinguish sexist behavior. The resultant reaction from most men is, “I don’t want to be told how to behave!” Yet most women – from habit and experience – are on constant defense: parsing between the obnoxious, childish behavior (just ignore it) and the truly threatening behavior (time to act).

I’ve been really lucky so far because the electrical contractor I work for has been able to keep me working steadily – as opposed to the average woman electrician, who is offered less hours on the job. Most of my journeymen and fellow apprentices are super smart and incredibly professional electricians. There are many times I can’t keep up with the banter about motorcycles, elk hunting or car restoration, and that’s perfectly fine with me. At least our conversations are more candid (and fun) than the typical office frippery.

My naive side wishes we could all just be ourselves while on the job and behave with respect and professionalism. All of us deserve a decent work environment where we can apply our skills. Yet, in my experience so far, being a woman in the trade still means:
– I am seen differently. There will be an acclimation period where my male co-workers will be testing out my strength, endurance, skill, AND my sense of humor and what I deem offensive. They’ll be sussing out how many eggshells they need to walk on around me.
– I will never find the same choices in work boots and work clothing men have.
– And I guess “girl” is still peppered interchangeably with “woman” or “guy” or “brother” or “man”.

Next week, we discuss diversity in the workplace. I can hardly wait.

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