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Cari Ebbert wants to be clear. After five years as an apprentice and 12 years as a union journey-level electrician, she hasn’t confronted anything like the harassment and abuse that Donna Hammond had to deal with 35 years ago, or electrical line workers still encounter today.


But full equality for women trying to forge careers as electricians is still a ways away, according to Ebbert, who lives in North Portland. “We have exchanged outright misogyny and sexism for covert discrimination,” she says. “There’s less of it that’s visible, but it’s always just under the surface.”

Ebbert, a past board member of Oregon Tradeswomen Inc., says the phrase “one-woman layoff” is common parlance at job sites. An example? She says she was working on a tall ladder with heavy tools, which felt a little unsafe. She is not a large woman. She went to her foreman and asked if she could switch tasks with one of the other electricians at the site. The next day, she didn’t have a job.

“That’s a one-woman layoff,” Ebbert says.

And it involves subtle discrimination, Ebbert says, that permeates the local electrical workers trade. She says during their apprenticeships, women don’t get trained in the same way. They often are relegated to simpler, repetitive tasks.

Ebbert recalls a job site a few years ago where she saw a black woman day after day putting in receptacles, a low-level job. The male apprentices were installing electrical panels and running circuits, more complicated work that involves problem-solving and attention to detail.

After discovering the woman was a high-level apprentice — level seven or eight out of 10 — and the men were level two and level three apprentices, Ebbert approached the contractor in charge of the job site. He told Ebbert that the black woman had become proficient at installing the receptacles and did them quickly. “She makes us a lot of money,” Ebbert recalls the contractor saying.

But the effect, according to Ebbert, is that the careers of women electricians get stalled. “Five years later, you end up with a journeyman who doesn’t have the skills to compete with everybody else on the job, with the 94 percent white male population,” she says.

That special treatment, in Ebbert’s view, keeps more women from becoming supervisors, and starts the day women begin their electrical worker apprenticeships. Often women have some catch-up to do at the start because they haven’t taken shop class in high school or worked with tools as much as men, she says. And often they never get past the resentment caused by that initial impression, even after they have caught up.

“We’re viewed as having fewer skills to start with,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked whether I got some special points to enter the apprenticeship for being a minority. So there’s already this assumption that you are not as capable as your male counterparts.”

All of which becomes doubly difficult in an industry where promotions, hirings and firings are almost all done by personal connection, without having to follow any standardized human resources policy.

“Imagine ‘Mad Men’ without the suits and politeness,” Ebbert says.

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