• U.S.

EMPLOYMENT: Crossed Wires at Bell

3 minute read

Ever since 1878, when one Stella Nutt and her sister Emma invaded what had been an exclusively male profession, the Bell System’s telephone operators have been almost all women, while its higher-paid skilled jobs have nearly all been held by men. The situation has long outraged feminists, and last January they won what seemed a significant victory: their complaint to the Government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission forced American Telephone & Telegraph Co. to sign a consent decree under which it agreed to throw open every job in the system to both sexes.* Nine months later, that decree is having a topsy-turvy effect; it is producing many more male operators than female linemen or telephone installers.

Ma Bell has made a conscientious effort to live up to the decree; the system’s managers have set goals (critics call them quotas) for the percentage of job openings in every category to be filled by women and by men. They also distribute to every employee brochures describing every job for which he or she might apply. But women simply have not been seeking traditionally male jobs in anything like the numbers that had been expected. During the second quarter of 1973, the latest period for which system-wide figures are available, Bell placed a grand total of 1,744 women in formerly male jobs—considerably less than half the 4,301 men who took jobs customarily filled by women.

Women have shown some interest in inside-the-plant men’s jobs, such as that of a “frameman,” who connects wires in a central office. During the second quarter, women filled 890, or 63%, of the semiskilled “inside” craft jobs that opened up. But surprisingly few women are applying for “outside” men’s jobs, such as lineman or installer—even though they pay more than most women’s jobs. (In Columbia, S.C., for example, repairmen make as much as $124 a week, v. $101.50 a week for an information operator.) Only 389 women were moved into such jobs in the second quarter, filling a mere 4.7% of the openings, v. a company goal of 19%.

Why? Some women say they fear that the outside jobs will take greater strength than they possess, or subject them to more discomfort than they want to endure; others seem to feel that the jobs are incompatible with their femininity. Men seem to have no such compunctions about applying for women’s jobs, despite the traditionally lower pay. During the second quarter, 2,656 were hired as operators, filling 17% of the openings (the company’s goal was 10%). Some possible explanations: many men as well as women may prefer the relative comfort of tedious indoor work to the rigors of outside jobs, and many men may still consider white-collar work more socially prestigious than better-paying blue-collar jobs.

Whatever the reason, the way that the consent decree has worked so far suggests that it may eventually have a wholly unintended effect. If the Bell System continues to offer men’s jobs to women who will not take them, and to offer women’s jobs to men who snap them up, employment of women throughout the system may go down.

*A T & T also agreed to pay $15 million, mostly to its women employees but a small portion to blacks and other minority men, to compensate them for wages theoretically lost by being denied access to better-paying jobs in the past.

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