The not-so-softer side of cabling

More and more, women are taking leadership roles in a "man's world" industry

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More and more, women are taking leadership roles in a "man's world" industry.

Michelle Abrams

As a word, "woman" has taken on various definitions over the years, both positive and negative. For instance, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary lists one definition as "a female servant or personal attendant." While the primary definition of woman is "an adult female person," it is often this secondary definition that has pigeonholed womankind into certain stereotypical career paths. A quick glance at the cabling industry reveals few women in leadership and technical roles. But those women who are in leadership are blazing a wider trail of opportunity for others to follow.

According to the Women's Educational Equity Act (WEEA) Equity Resource Center (Newton, MA), women represent only 22% of the science and engineering workforce. Studies performed by the organization indicate that fields such as cabling are among the least popular fields for women to enter. So, with so few women involved in the industry, what is it about cabling that has attracted those already involved?

Over the past 50 years, the Bell System, or some later offshoot of Bell, has opened the door to many of the established women in the industry. Jane Livingston, director of data connectivity systems for ADC (Minneapolis, MN) moved into the cabling industry through AT&T in 1989. With a background in information systems and computers, she was drawn to the opportunities and the new market. Having been immersed in the California computer market, Livingston explains, "I was used to working in a male-dominated industry," which she says eased the transition into the world of cabling.

For the love of the job

It was 33 years ago when Janice Boothe first entered the industry as a service representative in the residence department of Bell. Forced to take home economics in high school, after being rejected from shop class, Boothe personifies perseverance and has made her mark as the first female master instructor for industry association BICSI (Tampa, FL). Also an industry consultant, Boothe is also used to being the sole female on the job. Her love for her job has helped her overlook biases she has faced. "It is always challenging, and no two days are ever the same," says Boothe. "We are able to make decisions, think out problems, and we get to do things that have never been done before."

The fact that there are so few women involved in cabling has presented a challenge not only to entering the industry, but to advance and succeed. It is this challenge that has kept Betty Bezos involved for the past 20 years. She echoes Boothe, saying, "No two days are the same. I am a civil engineer but find technology and telecommunications a more interesting field." Bezos is also a BICSI master instructor and president of Bezos Technologies (Miami, FL).

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Cabling inddustry consultant Janice Boothe was also the first woman master instructor for BICSI.
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Carole Colvin, founder and president of Southern Telecom Communications (Tampa, FL), brought her career experience to the industry eight years ago. Colvin saw an opportunity to combine her two passions-education and technology-and founded her own company. While she has not had many of the same career advancement struggles as the 20- or 30-year industry veterans, she had to overcome unique obstacles as a minority woman leader. "The opportunities seemed endless in the education market," says Colvin. It was the technical side that presented a problem. "Being a woman had negative effects as I interacted with engineers and architects [largely male]."

While women face numerous challenges in this industry, the biggest challenge seems to be simply being a woman. Throughout time, women have been viewed as the "fairer" or "softer" sex, and this has created a plethora of perceptions and stereotypes that must be overcome before a woman can even begin to prove her intellect and talents in the cabling workplace. While it may sound like some men's perceptions present obstacles, sometimes a woman must even overcome her own perceptions.

Says Boothe, "The most challenging thing at the beginning was me. I put my own limitations out there." As her career has progressed, however, she says she has overcome her personal limitations. When teaching BICSI training courses, Boothe found the solution was "if I relax and do what I do best, the men become accepting. Usually after the first break!"

Parental guidance

Parents have had an enormous influence on the women's entry into the industry. Bezos credits both of her parents as serving as her first mentors. She says, "Both my parents are engineers, and seeing my mother in the field showed the possibilities and challenges."

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"The first assumption they would have was to consider me as the super secretary of my boss." -Carole El Zein
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Dick Powell, president of BICSI, was quite influential in Elesa Berard's entry into the industry. Not surprising-he is the father of this sales engineer for Rexel Datacom (Orlando, FL). Powell introduced his daughter to dirt bike racing when she was 12, an experience she classifies as invaluable because it taught her how to survive in a "man's world."

While never forceful, Powell encouraged Berard when she exhibited the slightest interest in the cabling industry. "When he saw the interest and the knowledge I had, he encouraged me," says Berard. Those experiences with her father taught Berard that, "you can't expect any different treatment because you are a girl." This has proved to be true for a number of women in the cabling industry, and has often caused them to work harder so as to be seen as intellectual equals.

"The guys could get away with 'close enough' but my work always had to be perfect," says Boothe. She has always taken pride in getting the job done right and working hard as both an individual and a team player. But Boothe notes that while she worked hard to obtain a leadership role, the roles in the cabling industry are constantly changing. She feels the role has been defined as that of a specialist. "We are not responsible for the entire job. We are there as a support role," says Boothe.

Carole El Zein, EMEA director of marketing at Anixter International (Skokie, IL)-the only female on BICSI's board of directors-also had to overcome these perceptions. She says, "My biggest challenge when I joined was to position myself, as it was a very 'male' environment. And the first assumption they would have was to consider me as the super secretary of my boss." Due in large part to the support of her male boss, however, El Zein says she was able to grow and succeed in the industry and conquer these perceptions.

The Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology has released findings indicating that, relative to men, women earn lower salaries, experience higher levels of unemployment, and find fewer and slower opportunities for career advancement. Knowing that the status quo is stacked against them, women in the cabling industry still strive to stay on par with men. In fact, they often strive to surpass them.

ADC's Livingston says, "there is no question" that she has had to work harder than her male colleagues. The perk, however, is that now Livingston's peers no longer view her as "a woman," but rather, for her accomplishments. But not all women in the industry are fortunate enough to be seen immediately for their abilities. Many are having to prove themselves worthy of gaining a contract, getting the promotion, or even worthy of being hired.

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"Both my parents are engineers, and seeing my mother in the field showed the possibilities and challenges."-Betty Bezos
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BICSI's RCDD (registered communications distribution designer) certification program has been one area where women in the cabling industry have been able to prove they are on equal playing ground with their male counterparts. The RCDD program was started in 1984 to provide a comprehensive knowledge base for both men and women, and earning certification has helped open doors for women such as Berard. "When vendors see my card, I get a response with the first call. Without the RCDD, it might take two, three or more calls." The RCDD certification sends a strong message of technical knowledge, recognizable immediately before there is time for stereotypical perceptions to set in. Berard adds, "As a female in the industry, if you are not perceived as smart, you won't have a very long life."

Colvin found persistence was the key. She notes that, "After a period of time, and a lot of 'proving,' consistency in performance allowed me to earn the respect that I needed to compete." The bottom line in the cabling industry, she says, is that a woman can have a pretty face and a nice disposition, but without the hard-core technical knowledge, she will fall flat on her face.

Alliances with men in the industry have also been a key force in helping women break into cabling. One potential reason for these alliances, in Livingston's opinion, is that there have not been any women to mentor or shadow. She credits a number of men, including Anixter's Steve Keller, as being true supporters of her career. "I have been treated with a lot of respect from men in the industry," adds Livingston. Boothe concurs, noting "The men in this industry, once they get to know you, are like brothers."

Sometimes, it can actually be more challenging to deal with other women in the industry than the men. According to Boothe, "Women in this industry share the need to be unique and we all want the 'Wire Queen' title. We are not as helpful to each other as we should be." But with so few women in the industry, the problem tends to stagnate, neither festering nor becoming resolved.

One common theme among women in the cabling industry is that at many meetings, classes, or job sites, they seem to be the only female in attendance. Naturally, this raises the question: is there gender bias in this industry? According to some, the answer is yes. "Women in this industry are always going to be second class citizens," says Boothe. Out in the field, Mary Jo Koch, installer and field service representative for Cox Communications (Hampton Roads, VA), says she does not face overt biases but notes that she has to adapt to a "man's world" and put up with off-handed comments made by some of her colleagues. One such colleague, wishing to remain anonymous, feels that more women are not installers simply because "they can't lift the ladder off the truck." Koch has learned to roll her eyes and laugh off comments like this, while turning to her truck, lifting the ladder, and going about her job. Fortunately, she says, these attitudes are rare among her male colleagues.

It's part of being in "the good ol' boy system," according to Berard. But much like Koch has done, Berard advises other women to use the system to their advantage. "The system is still there, you just have to figure out how to get in. Good ol' boy doesn't have to mean 'boy' any more. It is the group that is making it happen."

Bezos has encountered this same mentality with an older supervisor who had "no idea of managing by goals, scorecards, or motivation." This supervisor, she said, had a problem with a "woman with an opinion" participating on his team. While not treated as an equal, there was some consolation, notes Bezos, "that for men to succeed with him, they had to give up all their self-worth and just follow." Sometimes, she says, men who choose to exhibit biases against women are also not completely fair to their male colleagues.

Finally on par

In February 1998, Berard says she finally found the key to acceptance into the system.

Play golf.

The course, she says, has become an arena of equality, as mixed foursomes share the same tee and line up putts on the same green. Boothe, meanwhile, has taken a different turn on the golf course: "I drove the beer cart!"

Colvin optimistically observes that beyond the golf course, the gender differences have diminished as talented women are not only heading their own companies in the cabling industry, but founding them, too. Many of these women, she says, retain a positive attitude and remain tightly goal-oriented, fully prepared to handle business obstacles.

The key to dealing with old-fashioned attitudes and stereotypes, according to ADC's Livingston, is the phrase uttered by almost every mother: treat people the way you wish to be treated. "This is true for both men and women," says Livingston, "But especially key for women."

It is easy to glance around at industry conferences and make the blanket observation that men far outnumber women in the cabling trade. But compared to even ten years ago, the numbers have been on a steady increase. "A good, logical mind and intrinsic motivation can take you a long way," advises Bezos. Adds Colvin, "Identify the goal and then become task/objective-oriented to reach that goal."

With all of the challenges facing women who desire to become installers, technicians, engineers, or have any other role in the cabling industry, Bezos insists, "It is rewarding and above all, fun."

Cabling's women of yesteryear

In 1987, the month of March was set aside to honor the achievement of women over the course of history. In subsequent years, both houses of the U.S. Congress have approved the National Women's History Month resolution. As an industry heavily reliant on technology, the cabling industry can look with pride to women of the past, in addition to those of the present, who have helped form the foundation for current industry technology

For example, in 1873, Phil Remington introduced the predecessor to the computer. Remington brought this new punch key technology to popularity with the help of women. Demonstrators, in fact, were strictly women. And those purchasing the technology felt, in order to be operated properly, women had to operate it. Not only did Remington's invention mark a first step to allowing female presence in the male-dominated corporate environment, it also signaled the first foray of women into technology.

The Bell System, which was formed three years later, became one of the first major employers of women in the early part of the 20th Century. Bell, in fact, has been an integral channel for many of today prominent women in the cabling industry. It is out of the Bell System that the industry organization BICSI (Tampa, FL) was formed. And it was the Bell System that provided Janice Boothe (see main story) with the experience and knowledge to pass the BICSI RCDD exam the first time, with no additional preparation. -M.A.

Women in cabling through the years

1873 Invention of the typewriter, providing the first entry for women into "technology" of the day.
1902 Bell Systems employed 37,000 women as switchboard operators, compared to only 2,500 men.
1970s Industry organization BICSI formed by workers from the Bell operating companies.
1984 Anne Bluhm is the first female to become a RCDD.
1994 Amy Frey is the first female BICSI board member.
1996 Janice Boothe is the first female BICSI Master Instructor.

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