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Outside Plant -- A Woman's Experience
In the early 1970s the Bell System began hiring, under orders, women for jobs such as lineman and splicer that were traditionally held by men. They also started hiring men for jobs usually held by women, such as operators. This was a dramatic change to AT&T's corporate culture and it met with stiff resistance by certain managers. As the United State's largest private employer, great things were now expected of the Bell System. Instead of following social evolution in their hiring and management practices, as Boettinger put it, AT&T was now expected to promote and lead social change by constructive example. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission writes about the year 1973, that year of great change, in this way:
"1973: The EEOC (Equal Employment Oppportunity Commission), the Department of Labor, the Department of Justice and AT&T, the nation's largest private employer, sign a landmark consent decree to eliminate discriminatory recruiting, hiring and promotion practices against women and minorities. The action began in 1970 when EEOC petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to reject a substantial long distance telephone rate increase sought by AT&T. Under the decree filed in court, AT&T distributes $15 million to 13,000 women and 2,000 minority men. The company also provides approximately $30 million in immediate pay increases for 36,000 women and minorities whose advancement in the Bell system had been hampered by discrimination.:
A privateline.com reader of 30 years experience recently e-mailed me. She was one of the first females allowed in an Outside Plant job. She started at New Jersey Bell as a cord board operator and retired after 30 years as a CXM (Construction) Splicer. She also did stints as an installer and as a business office worker. Although now retired and teaching telecommunications, she notes that "The Good-OLE-Boy mentality never retired!" This story of pioneering, perservance, and dedication is in her own words.
(Note: the photograph to the right is not our writer)
Although I did not know it by that name, my interest in being a Lineman began in 1963, during a hurricane. My family lived in New Jersey and after the water settled, I saw all the trucks with their lights flashing. The crews looked like they were doing an important job. I remember thinking "That is what I want to do when I grow up"! I was about 12. I always was athletic, and enjoyed being outside.
In the early 70's I went to work for the phone company as an operator but that wasn't what I wanted to do; I was a member of NOW, and hated being an operator! When I learned they were looking for women to work outdoors as a Lineman, I jumped at the chance! Of course it was the Helen Reddy "I Am Woman" era, too! These were changing times, and I wanted to be part of them. To say Bell was miffed [by the new hiring requirements] is an understatement. To get our terms straight, I was a "Lineman"; to this day they resist gender neutral terms. They still insist on calling Utility Access Holes "Manholes." Linemen are now Outside Plant Technicians.
There were very few females outside at the time and none in Construction. I was in the first class of women to go to pole climbing school. Another woman I worked with tried, but it was November, cold, and she did not make it, I did. The only other women I knew were in the field to advance to management. They were in the "InDip" program. College graduates that had 2 years to advance to 2nd level management. Not many lasted. I knew two personally. They would spend about 6 months outside then were promoted to 1st level jobs. They used it as a stepping stone to management.
When I went outside, I left the Communication Workers of America union and went to IBEW. CWA wanted to see women get into the outside work, IBEW did not. It was International BROTHERHOOD of Electrical Workers" as was pointed out many times. We were in "crew" trucks at the time, decorated with pornographic literature. Their biggest problem with a woman were the rest room facilities. When I retired in 2000, my garage still did NOT have separate facilities. I had to use the mens' room, and would get a man to check if it was occupied before I used it. There was a lock put on, but was removed on a regular basis, until they installed a dead-bolt lock.
There were a few women in the installation side. That was an accepted field. It was light work. The guys in that garage were much more acceptable of a female technician. I just did not care for Installation. I was finishing college and went back to the business office to get my BA in Education. When finished college I waited for an opening in Splicing. That was the job I wanted.
I can only think of less than 15 female installers. One Lineman (OPT) and one other Construction Splicer. When I retired there were 3 other women in construction or CXM. Two did the job very well, the one that replaced me had the guys do the work for her. (this is New Jersey only) When I got to the CXM garage, the Union Rep greeted me with "We got rid of almost 30 of you, and we will get rid of you, too." I told him I had 17 years in the company, and I was not leaving.
I was never sent to school for splicing. I was handed a book and a broken down truck, some tools and sent out to the field. The second liner told my Foreman "Don't send her to school because "they" never stay." I picked Newark, New Jersey because I knew it was a "two man" area. High crime so no one was allowed to work there alone.
In the beginning, whomever I was assigned to work with, would just leave me once we got to the job site. Finally I was assigned to a minority partner and things started to work out. He explained to me I was like he was 20 years ago. Nonwhite males were not allowed in splicing, It was a closed club. I was now the minority. I have always been grateful for how the "brothers" treated me. After they realized that I was there to do the job, and not just use the job as a stepping stone to management, they were great! I spent quite a few years there, then transferred closer to home. Back to the same group that I was a lineman with! By this time I was a very good technician, and mostly worked alone. Think that covers your questions! K.
p.s. By the way, I love what I am doing now, teaching telecom!
Ed Delaney, our friendly OSP expert, checks in with his observations of the time, especially about a woman who persevered because she loved her work:
What K. wrote was all true, as I lived through it, in our greater Pittsburgh area. I remember the first black man and the first white woman to work outside plant in the district where I worked. I think that the women in outside plant had more problems being accepted, as your writer said.
A friend of mine, whom I am still close with, a woman cable splicing tech., was transferred from garage to garage around the city. She was also denied a transfer to a garage near her home by being passed over when the company transferred a man with less time. That was a real a no-no by company-union agreement, and she suffered this kind of harassment for quite a long time.
The union finally took up her transfer problem and after some months, she got assigned to the garage she wanted to work out of. I personally know that she worked harder then most men, because she really liked what she was doing and she's still with it at this time.
Another reader adds her comments:
I agree with what's been stated about outside plant. I was the first female in the northern Illinois area in the county that I worked in. I was not welcome in any of the garages. Although I was put into installation and repair, the teleco tried several times to put me back inside as a dispatcher and tester. After awhile I was accepted by the all white male population and even made some good friends that I have today, after my retirement.
In part it was management but it was also the guys. I was in their world with no females allowed. I was always sent to help them out, but they never asked help from me. Another problem was a male attitude. At the garage one morning a friend was bad mouthing his wife and I told him not to talk about her like that, because I was a women also. He said to me that I was different, that I thought like a man, so there you have it.
I retired as an outside repair person which I enjoyed very much. I spent 23 years outside and had to retire because of the Northern Illinois cold weather I could not longer take it. I'd like to state that there are no women in that garage now.
Action figure of a Bell System woman lineman, made in the middle 1970s. Note the makeup. Cheerfully represented what the Bell System wanted to portray. As K. puts it "I do remember those dolls! UGH!"