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Today, more and more women are entering executive and leadership roles in the steel industry. They are building on the work begun by women at the outbreak of World War I.

Men went overseas to fight at the onset of the war. This left American factories, railways, and emergency services without a workforce. Although reluctant to hire women in more demanding forms of labor, the need for workers in munitions production eventually forced the issue.

Once military conscription for soldiers began in 1916, the US government even held recruitment drives for women workers. Female employment rose to its highest in the country’s history. Women began filling traditionally male roles en masse. They worked on the production floors, testing facilities, and storage yards at steel mills. 

Women in the Workforce

Empowered and strengthened by this foray into paid labor, future generations of women began to enter the workforce. After Pearl Harbor created another wave of unfilled jobs and need for munitions, female employment in steel mills became commonplace. 

The number of women steelworkers grew slowly at first, as employers evaluated what positions might be suitable for them. According to a 1943 report by the Department of Labor, there were women working in most US steel mills by the end of that year.

Previously, it was unlikely to find women at the actual mills except as assorters. Executives believed their “touch sensitivity” made them skilled at quality control. 

The report goes on to say women were mostly employed in the “lighter and least skilled jobs”. It predicted that the laboratories and plant offices afforded the best opportunities for women’s “continued post-war employment.”

The Women’s Bureau additionally recommended that plants not employ women in highly skilled or hazardous positions. Their tenure was expected to be short, restricted to wartime only. 

Committed to Working

Once American women had tasted the freedom and independence of paid labor, they weren’t turning back. Several succeeded at what were deemed to be the harder, more intensive tasks requiring strength and endurance.

In the following decades, working mothers were the driving force behind the women’s work movement. According to Business Journal Daily, women were paid less and endured poor – even fatal – working conditions. Sometimes, they took more dangerous jobs for their higher pay incentives.

Women formed auxiliaries to operate alongside unions and fight for both men’s and women’s rights in the workplace. These rights included safer work environments and equal pay. 

Women in Steel Today

Despite, or perhaps due to, the doubts of labor experts, women can be found in every facet of the industry today. They occupy all positions, from manufacturing to sales to corporate leadership.

Almost 20% of employees in the steel industry are female. Women who have already made the climb up the proverbial (steel) ladder say they see more women joining them each year. 

Corporate Director of Human Resources for ArcelorMittal, Mary Lynn Gargas-South, says the company actively conducts public outreach to interest women in the field. It also aims to groom them for executive positions. 

Just as the cleanup crews and “test girls” from the steel mills of decades past led the way for those who would follow, today’s women of steel are readying the playing field for generations of women to come.