Thursday, March 27, 2014 • 11:36 AM Comments ()

Nitwits of 1963-ers?

posted by Susan Eisenberg

“The training will be good for those nitwits.” I winced, but said nothing, then mulled over my silence and “nitwits” for weeks. The speaker was describing the 2-hours of required harassment training for the electrical maintenance department at Massport, a quasi-public agency that oversees three airports (including Boston Logan), and the port. Those permanent, well-paid jobs everyone wants.

There’s always someone who’s going to “do something stupid” . . . “act like a jerk” . . . “be an asshole” . . . I’ve been bothered by this kind of language for a long time. Language that makes the person sound pathetic or laughable, when they’re often quite smart, determined, and—too often—successful in achieving their goal. Words like “nitwits” keep the focus on personal—rather than systemic—failings. And sends us in the wrong direction.

1963-ers is the term I’ve been trying out. It seems more accurate and useful.

Not until 2006 did Massport’s electrical maintenance department (roughly 40 workers) hire its first woman. In 2011, she and the second woman hired—both after very successful careers in construction—were gone. During those 5 years they tried unsuccessfully to redress persistent, systematic abuse through Human Resources and their union. After both won discrimination and workers’ comp settlements for career-ending injuries, the department is back to being a woman-free-zone. Some in attendance described the harassment training as “a joke.”

Before Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employment discrimination in hiring, advancement and layoffs was legal. Let’s be honest, some people are nostalgic for 1963, and some of those people have control over the work environment. I often think “traditional industry” is a code word for this.

Back in the summer of 1981, I was sent to the GM plant in Framingham, MA, the only woman among 400 men. We were reconstructing the assembly line after demolition, installing the first robots—a great job for a new 4th year apprentice. “Everyone is welcome here,” the steward assured me, “blacks, guys who refuse to work with blacks, women, guys who refuse to work with women.” At the time, it was a relatively progressive point-of-view.

By now, the fallout of that thinking is clear. You can’t give safe harbor to people who feel entitled to discriminate and exclude and provide a fair workplace. It’s not hard to figure out why women’s workforce percentage has stalled at 2.5%, if women can be trained, given work assignments, evaluated for promotion or layoff, and have their safety overseen by someone who feels entitled to remove them. When 1963-ers are in supervisory or leadership roles, even men who are fair-minded read the signals and become afraid to act as allies. Effective harassment training would teach how to intervene, and would address the power issue.

Hopefully, 2014 will be a year when the industry helps 1963-ers join the 21st century—or makes them unwelcome.

This essay was previously published in Susan Eisenberg's blog, Susan Eisenberg: Art that Opens Conversation and is re-posted here with her permission.

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