Do women lose some of their femininity--and thus, presumably, their ability to attract men--when they venture into jobs traditionally dominated by males?
The answer, given at a Sex Equity Conference for 350 high school girls in Torrance this week: Not to worry. The old magic still works, even when a woman takes up such manly occupations as wielding a hammer and saw in construction work.
The men may resist the intrusion at first, said carpenter Laurie Mauk, one of about 25 women who told students at the Levy Curriculum Center of the challenges and rewards of breaking job stereotypes.
Mauk, who wore a T-shirt and shorts--and a tool belt strapped around her waist--said men may try to intimidate female newcomers with wolf whistles.
They may try to take advantage of the situation, such as demanding a date in exchange for keeping a job, said Mauk, recalling one occasion when she was fired for rejecting her boss's overtures.
But after the first day on the job, Mauk assured the girls, the men usually settle down and accept the women as equals in the workplace--especially if the women work hard and prove that they can do the job as well as anyone.
"It's still a man's world out there, so we women have to try harder," Mauk said.
Aside from what one counselor called the "eternal question of femininity," the juniors and seniors at the conference, sponsored by the Torrance Unified School District, seemed most interested in salary and advancement possibilities in the new fields open to them.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Kathy Orthman assured the girls that the sky is the limit. In today's military world, she said, women can fly airplanes and aspire to the upper ranks.
Jennifer Finley, a junior at South High School, said she finds the idea of serving in the military exciting, but mostly she wants to earn the GI Bill benefits that would help finance her ambition to be a doctor.
"The great thing about the new career possibilities for women is that they give us a chance to do what we want to do, not what we have to do," Finley said.
Maria del Carmen Faraone said she would like to experience the adventure of the open road as a truck driver before she goes on to to college and a career in accounting.
"I think it would be fun," she said, as she and a a friend, Odette Isaacs, climbed into a huge cement rig brought to the conference to highlight careers in trucking. "Where can I get some information on where to apply?"
Law enforcement, made glamorous by TV and movie dramas, seemed to be another avenue for adventure. Sgt. Sue Rhilinger said that the way is open for women at the Torrance Police Department, thanks to a class-action lawsuit several years ago that gave them the right to compete for most jobs.
"Policemen are notoriously chauvinistic," she said, "but we're making progress in overcoming that problem."
Is there danger out there for women? Jeanne James, a petite FBI agent, assured the girls that good training and a quick mind can offset any lack of physical strength.
She told of talking a hulking suspect with mighty biceps--"thicker than my legs"--into submitting to arrest by telling him that two other agents were hiding in nearby bushes, ready to shoot if he tried to resist.
If talk fails, she told the entranced girls, there are other ways of overcoming resistance--and she opened her coat to reveal the .38-caliber pistol hanging under her arm.
Tracy Martin, a field worker with the gas company, also answered questions on the safety of women in unfamiliar job places. She said she must occasionally venture into rough neighborhoods in response to calls for service, but she counts on radio communication with her office and the right to leave a location if it appears unsafe.
"I haven't had any problems so far," Martin said. "Knock on wood."
Martin and other blue-collar workers said they were drawn to their jobs by their desire to work outdoors and use their hands.
"I'm really just a big kid and I love to be outdoors," said Rae Lynn Black, a Chevron oil field employee. "So this kind of work is just playing for me."
But, of course, she added, a lot of dirt and grime comes with the job and women workers must do their share of the lifting and digging.
"When a pipe starts to leak, you have to get down there and dig it up and fix it," said Black, displaying a pair of grimy coveralls.
That aspect of Black's job did not appeal to at least one girl in her audience. "I'm interested in getting away from the traditional jobs for women," said Andrea Faria. "But not that far."