By: Shay Chan Hodges
In the summer of last year, I was invited to attend the White House Summit on Working Families and had the good fortune to meet dozens of amazing women, a few of whom I was able to interview and add to my multi-media ibook, Lean On and Lead, Mothering and Work in the 21st Century Economy.
One of the most compelling stories comes from Celeste, who has a technical degree and has worked in male-dominated jobs for her entire professional life. After working extensively in the electronics and cable fields in Virginia and Georgia, she moved back to her home town as a single mom:
I learned that in New York, being a woman in the electronics field was not good. I went in for tests, and the guys that I tested with all got interviews, but I wouldn’t get callbacks — even for jobs that I had already been doing at Bell South. I was in shock. So I changed my name on my resume to CJ instead of Celeste. I applied for some of the same jobs, started getting calls, but I still wouldn’t get interviews because as soon as I picked up the phone, they realized I was a woman.
…For over a year, I tried to get a job in electronics, but I also did a whole lot of different work to earn money. First I was an installer for alert systems for older people. Then I worked at a giftware company, where I provided technical support for products like watches with heart rate monitors. While I was at that company, I wrote up scripts for answering technical support calls, and eventually became a supervisor. Even though some of the jobs were satisfying and I met some great people, nothing paid enough. Even as a supervisor, I earned less than $40,000, which isn’t enough to live on in New York. Luckily, I had some savings and that helped…
Eventually, Celeste decided to take a job as a station agent at the New York Transit Authority because she had an opportunity to train for a better job through an apprentice program:
“I was really happy. This was a much better salary than station agent because it was in the electrical department. And every year of the three year program, we would get a raise. We were told that once we graduated, we would become provisional maintainers, and after passing the test, we would be permanent maintainers. It was a relatively new program for the power department, and I was the only woman, but I would be learning things that I was interested in, and it seemed like everyone wanted me there and respected me.”
“The work was full-time and really demanding. And I started to realize it was a big deal that I was a woman. As I rotated through different departments, I found out that at some locations, they didn’t even have female bathrooms. I had to wait for all the men to use the bathroom, and then go in after everyone else was done. It was disgusting.”
“I’ve never been scared of hard work, and I really enjoyed the job and the people. And when I first started, management acted very supportive, telling me they expected me to be permanent and eventually be a superintendent. I gained respect from the men because I knew what I was doing. But management issues were becoming really difficult. In addition to the bathroom, I was expected to use the same locker room as the men. I knew this wasn’t supposed to be happening, but I wanted to be a maintainer, so I just came to work in my work clothes and didn’t use the locker room. All of this was against federal guidelines, but I didn’t want to be retaliated against or lose the chance of obtaining permanent status, so I kept quiet.”
Despite her best efforts to get along, Celeste was not ultimately able to complete the apprenticeship, nor earn the position she was working towards. She describes the events in her Lean On and Lead interview, and how they impacted her family:
… Two weeks later, my shift was changed to the night shift. That was really hard. Instead of reaching my goals, I was being taught a lesson. And this was a time when I needed to be around for my younger son as much as possible. My kids had been seventeen and eleven when I started the job — in high school and middle school — and now the younger one was moving towards high school.
“…How I raised my kids was based on my own upbringing. My family was strict, but at the same time, really involved with the kids and always doing a lot of things together. So I always had my kids with me. We did a lot of sports — football, basketball — and every Sunday when there was a major game, we had all of the boys over at our house to watch. But when I started to work for transit, things changed. It was a high stress job. The fact that it’s a 24/7 operation means you don’t get real holidays or weekends. There are no good shifts where you can be home to cook dinner and have time to talk with your kids and find out what’s happening. One of the worst things that happened to me was having to work nights because I was asleep when my younger son got home from school and then gone when he was supposed to be asleep. He became a different person and started to get into trouble because I wasn’t home to supervise him. As a single parent, it was rough on me, and it really affected how much I could be there for my child.”
“…That’s why getting invited to the White House Summit was so inspiring. It meant so much to hear the female union leaders, politicians, and business people speaking up for workers, women, and parents, and talking out loud about the issues that I’ve been dealing with these last few years. The hairs on my arms stood up when [union leaders] Mary Kay Henry and Liz Shuler spoke.”
“Discrimination against women is like racism, and it needs to change. With women, inappropriate behavior happens all the time, and we all have our stories.”
“I’ve been sexually harassed and I’ve had co-workers say, ‘my wife wants to know why you took this job.’ (My answer was, ‘I want money. Don’t you want money?’)”
This is the time for women, and we’re in a fight for our lives.