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“Boys’ club” workplaces—where the only womanly presence is clad in a swimsuit on a wall calendar—are fast becoming a thing of the past.

Each year more and more women punch the clock in places where few females set foot 20 years ago. Nontraditional women’s occupations (which the U.S. Department of Labor defines as those in which fewer than 25 percent of employees are female) are steadily becoming female friendly.

Currently, less than 1 percent of America’s 162,000 collision repair workers are women. The Department of Labor estimates that growth in the American economy means jobs in auto body repair shops are going to become more abundant and attractive to female job seekers in coming years.

Shop owners with no female employees or those whose repair floors are run entirely by men need to plan for the coming changes. Bringing women into shops where they’ve never been before can bring growing pains.

Men accustomed to an estrogen-free work environment may resist having women join them. That could make new female workers feel uncomfortable. If employers aren’t careful, such a situation could end up as a sexual harassment claim and cost big money as well as embarrassment and hurt feelings.

Fortunately, all those headaches can be avoided with a little preparation, employee training and understanding, experts say.

Planning is the key. The first thing that employers need to make clear is that when a woman comes into an all-male workplace, the guys probably are going to have to be more careful what they say. It could be a significant change, depending on the shop.

“People [may not] want to mind their p’s and q’s, but the reality is that state and federal laws mandate it,” says Jack Tuckner, cofounder of the country’s only law firm dedicated to women’s rights in the workplace: New York–based Tuckner, Sipser, Weinstock & Sipser LLP.
“Typical male-dominated industries, such as the auto industry, experience severe growing pains when they begin to open their cultures to women,” Tuckner says.

“Problems inevitably surface in the form of claims of discrimination from the pioneering women and many men feel threatened and devalued by the incoming gals. Once a legal action is commenced, everyone loses.”

That doesn’t mean workers must act like the shop floor is covered with egg shells, Tuckner says. The main task is making sure all employees feel comfortable. If the new female employee curses like a farmer during a drought—and everyone else does too—it may not be a problem.

On the other hand, if a woman joins a crude crew and is uncomfortable with it, employers could face big problems if they don’t fix the situation.

New employees should be told to notify their boss or owner if anyone they work with makes them feel uncomfortable, Tuckner says. If a complaint is made, employers must investigate it and take action if necessary. A specific procedure for such instances should be in writing and distributed to all employees. Employers should have their workers sign a form indicating they understand the policy, Tuckner advises.

Developing a plan and putting it in writing may seem like a lot of work, but it doesn’t have to be. An employee handbook outlining a sexual harassment policy need not be full of lawyer-speak. A few clear pages can do the job. Guides can be found online (at eHow.com, for instance, search for “sexual harassment policy”), or lawyers can help employers write one, Tuckner says.

Once a policy is set and employees sign an agreement form, employers are in the clear as long as they follow the policy if a complaint is made, Tuckner says. If a complaint isn’t made and someone later claims harassment or discrimination, as long as a procedure was available, employers won’t have to worry if an accuser did not speak up.

Making sure a policy is in place to deal with an alleged harassment situation is an important first step to making women feel welcome in a traditionally male-dominated workplace. But fostering an environment where such a situation never occurs should be the ultimate goal.

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