Female electricians in the Midwest are ready to fight for equality.
Women within the 11th District of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers are waiting on a charter to be finalized, which will establish the first Women’s Committee within the district that covers North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri.
“Younger women are breaking through, but they don’t know how to take their skills and put them out there and say, ‘I can do this,'” said 18-year IBEW member Mary Sand of Dubuque. “We’re hoping we can mentor them and show them they can do this and tell them there’s no reason they can’t.”
The push for the inaugural women’s committee began when Sarah Faber, an IBEW Local 499 member of Clive, sent a letter to the IBEW in January at the urging of her fellow female IBEW members in Iowa.
In the letter, she wrote that the committee would form in order to “assist the IBEW in understanding the issues faced by working women and their families.”
“This committee is committed to increasing the participation of women in every aspect of the union including: apprentice training, mentoring and most importantly, leadership in union and community roles,” Faber wrote in the letter. “The IBEW would like to see every local form a women’s committee within their local.”
The overarching goal is to better focus attention on unique challenges that women union members in the workplace encounter.
“It’s about having gloves that fit appropriately, having boots that fit appropriately, having harnesses that fit — that’s the real stuff,” Sand said. “Do you know how hard it is — I used to have to wear harnesses at a previous job and while I was in the military — do you know how bad it is to have a harness that squeezes your chest? It’s painful.”
Fieldwork Isn’t Easy When The Clothes Don’t Fit
It’s more than just harnesses that are making working women uncomfortable.
Their gloves don’t fit. Their boots don’t fit. And the jumpsuits just don’t work.
“These are very real issues,” Sand said. “I come from the mentality of I’m not going to sound like I’m complaining about gloves or this or that, I just muddle through it.”
“When the time comes and guys whine about something, I just say ‘what’s the problem?'” Sand said. “We do it all the time with gloves and tools that don’t fit properly and we still get the job done.”
Sand doesn’t even wear the jumpsuits or coveralls that most men in the field at Black Hills electric do.
“It takes me too long to go to the bathroom,” Sand said about the jumpsuits. “I buy a pair of man’s jeans that are a size too big so I can get at least one pair if not two pairs of long-johns on.”
“It is hard to drop your jumpsuit or your coveralls if you happen to find a port-a-potty somewhere,” Sand said. “The arms are flopping into the toilet and on that dirty floor and then you come out smelling like an outhouse. Guys don’t have the same issue.”
In addition to the ill-fitting clothes, Sand has been harassed at the work place. She said she’s been bullied and sexually harassed.
“I’ve come through it and I’m still here and there are a lot of guys who aren’t,” Sand said. “It’s about having the strength to let other women know they can do this, too.”
Amanda Cooling, of the Local 405 of Cedar Rapids, joined the committee to give women a hand up.
She said she’s enjoyed hosting quarterly meetings with women in her area because it not only gives them a chance to talk about issues that don’t usually get discussed during the day, it simply gives the moms in her groups a chance to get out of the house after work.
After Cooling started the group, she and the women decided they wanted to share their stories and teach others about the issues women face in the workplace. She approached her business manager, Bill Hanes, about creating an educational event with the University of Iowa Labor Center.
There are now plans in motion to host a session to cover women’s issues in the construction and outdoor environment. The group is hoping for good turnout at the event, which is currently slated for January.
There are five women in all who have been working hard to establish the new committee, and they have accomplished a lot since that letter was sent nearly one year ago.
For example, in October the women sold more than 200 t-shirts for breast cancer awareness. The money raised will go towards a free women’s wellness clinic in a rural area where women have a hard time getting cancer screenings.
Cooling also began conducting quarterly meetings with women in her area, and Sand volunteered to run a booth at the Trades Night at Hempstead High School in Dubuque.
While the committee plans to continue its charitable contributions and to encourage its members to be as involved in their own communities as possible, there’s more to the women’s committee than volunteering.
A Committee By Women, For Women
Sand, who holds degrees in religious studies and philosophy, is an Army veteran who served in Desert Storm. She is well aware how long women have been fighting for their rights. She grew up watching Billie Jean King take on Bobby Riggs.
As a child of the ’60s, Sand’s parents always believed in very traditional gender roles. It was fairly unheard of for women to branch out and do things outside of the home.
“And then, of course, there was Vietnam and I was concerned my brother was going to go war and then the explosion of the NOW (National Organization of Women) movement happened and women stepped up and it continued to build after that,” Sand said. “I think this has been an evolution.”
“It starts out slow because women were fighting and fighting for their rights, and now there are just so many women who are working outside the home,” Sand said. “They’re not in traditional roles and they realize they can be in all kinds of places — they can be in boardrooms, they can be running companies and they can start up their own business.”
She noted there are still men who are threatened by the work Sand does at Black Hills Energy.
One of her previous supervisors harassed her and wrote her up for things he wouldn’t accuse her male colleagues of doing.
“At first I didn’t catch on, but he would take my ideas and take them to his bosses in Des Moines, then I called him out on it,” Sand recalled. “The table needed to be turned and you have to be a strong woman to fight that.”
by Paige Godden