Lois Kathryn Herr. Women, Power, and AT&T: Winning Rights in the Workplace. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003. xvii + 200 pp. $22.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-55553-536-0; $47.50 (library), ISBN 978-1-55553-537-7.
Reviewed by Thomas C. Jepsen (National Coalition of Independent Scholars)
Published on H-Women (May, 2003)
Sorry, Wrong Numbers: The EEOC and Equal Employment Opportunity at AT&T
Sorry, Wrong Numbers: The EEOC and Equal Employment Opportunity at AT&T
One of the most enduring and oft-quoted legends of the telephone industry concerns the early employment of women as telephone operators. When telephone switchboards were introduced in the late 1870s, young boys were first employed to connect subscribers to one another. However, due to their boisterous behavior, inability to submit to discipline, and rudeness to customers, they were quickly replaced by women, who were believed to be, in the words of one commentator, "all the things that were described by the vanished word 'ladylike'--calm, gracious, diffident, never profane."
Thus the occupation of telephone operator became a gendered occupation almost at its inception. The Bell System could argue ninety years later that the essential requirements for this position--quality of service and the "voice with a smile"--were in the exclusive possession of the female gender (p. 36), and therefore being female was a formal part of the Bona Fide Occupational Qualification, or BFOQ, for the occupation of telephone operator. But the same logic that made operating a females-only occupation could also be used to exclude women from other positions within the company. The company could claim that craft positions, such as "switchman," could only be filled by males, since the BFOQ for these positions included heavy lifting, irregular working hours, and driving alone at night.
This practice of classifying jobs by gender raised few eyebrows during the early years of the Bell System as it grew to become a virtual monopoly under the regulation of the U.S. government. Few questioned the employment practices of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company as long as it fulfilled its promise of universal service to all in exchange for Federal Communications Commission regulation of its rates. By the 1960s, however, AT&T's employment practices had come to be viewed as anachronistic by many, both inside and outside the giant company. Yet the top management of AT&T reacted with surprise and anger when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charged it with discrimination based on gender in a series of actions in the early 1970s. After all, had AT&T not been a pioneer in providing employment to women? And had it not provided jobs for hundreds of thousands of women over nearly a century? Lois Herr's book perceptively chronicles the origins of this cognitive dissonance, and describes the strategy and tactics used by the EEOC, the National Organization of Women (NOW), and the women employees of AT&T to bring about change in the employment practices and corporate culture of the telecommunications giant.
The EEOC had been reviewing the telephone company's employment policies for several years when AT&T requested the FCC to grant it a rate increase in November 1970. The EEOC, seeing an opportunity to challenge AT&T's hiring practices, intervened in the rate request, charging that AT&T was using the rate increase to compensate for inefficiencies created by its discriminatory practices. The FCC began an investigation into the charges, and the EEOC, newly given enforcement powers, held hearings on AT&T's employment practices. The result was a series of consent decrees, enacted between 1973 and 1979, which required AT&T to develop an affirmative action program, develop an upgrade and transfer program, and provide back pay to those denied promotions in the past based on gender.
Herr tells her story not as an academic historian, but as an insider; she worked as a technical editor and manager at AT&T for many years, and thus provides a unique perspective on a corporate culture that is often difficult for outsiders to understand, with its inward focus and addiction to acronyms. (In true telecom style, Herr provides a list of acronyms and their meanings at the beginning of the book.) Her personal involvement in the struggle for equal rights came about as a result of obstacles she faced in her own career: why were women forbidden to wear pants to work? And why, when she requested a transfer to a technical position, was she encouraged to become a typing pool supervisor instead?
Herr's emerging consciousness of the "glass ceiling" that she and her fellow female employees faced as they attempted to advance their careers led to her involvement with NOW, founded in 1966 by Betty Friedan and others, as well as a personal commitment to effect change from within the corporation. She effectively describes the duality of being both a loyal employee and a corporate activist, roles that sometimes were complementary and sometimes oppositional. Herr avoids demonizing either corporate executives or radical feminists, and acknowledges the complex interplay of interests that led to the ultimate settlements. In particular, she points out the contributions of progressive AT&T executives like William Mercer, Vice President of Personnel, who had worked for the elimination of gender-based discrimination well before the EEOC charges were filed.
Women, Power, and AT&T is particularly effective in describing the complex interworkings of multiple organizations, each with a separate agenda, and the strategies each organization used to achieve its goals. Herr describes how NOW, under the leadership of Aileen Hernandez, Wilma Scott Heide, and Sally Hacker, pressured the EEOC to focus on women's rights at AT&T as well as those of racial minorities. The EEOC, scarcely two years older than NOW and with much of its legal staff fresh out of law school, sought to establish its legitimacy as an enforcement agency while fighting turf battles with its rivals at the Justice Department and the Government Services Administration. AT&T tried to take advantage of this bureaucratic infighting by submitting its affirmative action plan to the GSA, rather than the EEOC; this attempted end play was derailed when the Justice Department took over jurisdiction in the case in 1972. The Communications Workers of America, the union which represented many of the telephone operators, refused to participate in the discussions leading up to the settlement, fearing that the settlement might jeopardize the union's seniority rules. The FCC, in an uncharacteristically activist mode of operation, expanded its regulatory role to include review of employment practices as well as rate regulation.
Much has transpired in the thirty years since the first consent decree was enacted in 1973, and the events that Herr describes have been overshadowed to a degree by the Watergate scandal in 1974 and the breakup of the Bell System in 1984. In a postscript, Herr provides an assessment of the long-term impact of the settlement. She acknowledges that AT&T cooperated willingly in executing the new guidelines, noting that "AT&T set about implementing the decree in the same organized, systematic way it implemented any policy" (p. 155). Post-settlement reviews conducted by the EEOC, the GSA, and the Departments of Labor and Justice found sharp increases in the number of women in craft and senior managerial positions. Other corporations followed AT&T's lead in eliminating barriers to entry and advancement for women employees. Today, AT&T can rightfully claim to have advanced the careers of many top women executives, including CEO Patricia Russo of its equipment spin-off, Lucent Technologies, and Carly Fiorina, now CEO of Hewlett-Packard. And by opening its craft positions to women as well as men, AT&T made it possible for Venus Green not only to exchange a clerical job for a position as a switchman in 1973, but to start on a career path that led to her becoming a historian and author of a history of race and employment in the Bell System.
Herr's book uses a balanced and thoughtful approach that brings dust-jacket kudos from AT&T executives as well as members of the women's movement. William M. Ellinghaus, former president of AT&T, writes that "Ms. Herr ... helped us at AT&T to see more clearly the value and potential of the women in our companies and to take the steps necessary to realize this potential" (quote from dust-jacket). Her experience as a former technical editor is visible as she describes the painstaking preparation of enormous amounts of documentation submitted by each side. And her use of photographs to illustrate the "culture clash" between the suit-and-tie AT&T executives and the long-haired, tieless EEOC lawyers is wonderfully evocative of an era when dress and hair length were indicators of one's political and social beliefs. This book is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in telecommunications history and the history of the women's movement in the 1970s.
. John Brooks, Telephone: The First Hundred Years (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 66.
. For an excellent history of the telephone operators' involvement with the labor movement, see Stephen H. Norwood, Labor's Flaming Youth: Telephone Operators and Worker Militancy, 1878-1923 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990).
. Venus Green, Race on the Line: Gender, Labor, and Technology in the Bell System, 1880-1980 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001).
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