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When I was growing up, my bookshelf was filled with volumes like “Firefighter Frank” and “Nancy Nurse.” Today’s titles reflect our society’s partial progress toward gender equality: “Maybe You Should Fly a Jet; Maybe You Should Be a Vet.” But we still live in a society in which 99 percent of airline pilots and firefighters are men, and 98 percent of nurses are women. Such persistent gender segregation was apparent to anyone who paid even passing attention to the profiles of heroism after the Sept. 11 attacks. Women were often noticeable for their absence, and this had much to do with gender barriers in employment. Today, some 20 years after Brenda Berkman sued the New York Fire Department for sex discrimination, only 36 of the department’s 11,000 firefighters are women. Of the nation’s construction workers, including those involved in Ground Zero rebuilding efforts, only about 3 percent are women. The problem is not simply women’s lack of interest in such employment. That point is underscored in a recent study co-sponsored by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. “Working First but Working Poor” found that about two-thirds of surveyed low-income women in job training programs around the country would consider accepting work in at least one “nontraditional” occupation, defined as a job in which at least 75 percent of the workers are men. If the study had disclosed relative salary information, it is likely that even higher percentages of women might have registered interest. Compared with other jobs open to low-income women, blue-collar jobs like construction work and firefighting pay more, offer better benefits and provide more opportunities for development of marketable skills. Yet all too often, these nontraditional occupations are not “woman friendly” environments. Despite recent progress and a cottage industry of lawsuits, overt hostility and harassment persist in many workplaces. Examples abound in Jane Latour’s oral history project, published in last May’s Labor History. “Live! From New York: Women Construction Workers in Their Own Words,” recounts the experiences of women who coped daily with abusive conduct. Male co-workers stole their tools, urinated on their work sites, exposed them to hazards and withheld favorable assignments. Formal complaints were rare. Many women feared retaliation or informal blacklisting. In a survey by psychologist Louise Fitzgerald, Suzanne Swan and Karla Fisher, a third of the women who had filed a sex harassment complaint thought it made things worse; only a fifth believed that such complaints were fairly treated. These problems for women in nontraditional occupations reflect long-standing patterns. But they have taken on a new urgency in an era of welfare reform. Low-income single mothers are entering the work force in record numbers, and some will soon bump up against lifetime limits on obtaining federal assistance. The traditional “women’s work” that has been available to these individuals rarely pays a living wage. Job training programs and vocational counselors typically steer women toward low-skill, dead-end jobs like clerical work and fast-food service. After deductions for child care, transportation and other work-related expenses, these jobs will not lift families out of poverty. PROMISING RESPONSES We do not lack for promising remedial responses. More training programs are needed to equip and encourage women to apply for nontraditional work. Subsidies should be available to help low-income women obtain such training. Employers must take more proactive steps to make nontraditional jobs accessible to women workers. Flexible or part-time schedules, child care assistance and sex harassment training are obvious steps. Other priorities should include efforts to survey women workers and to hold supervisors accountable for progress toward gender equality. Berkman is now a lieutenant in the New York Fire Department. This past November, in accepting an award by the National Worker’s Law Center, she noted, “The reality is that women were and are at Ground Zero. … But the face that the media has put on the rescue and recovery efforts in New York City is almost exclusively of men.” Berkman’s main point was that the heroism of women workers should not go unnoticed. But neither should the barriers to equal opportunity in their workplaces. As we strengthen our commitment to homeland security, we need to ensure that women are full and equal partners in the effort. Deborah L. Rhode, who teaches at Stanford Law School, is director of the Keck Center on Legal Ethics.

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