A black-and-white photo snapped at the Bay Bridge's 1936 grand opening features the fetching Miss Berkeley, Miss Oakland and International Queen. It is one of the few photos of women among stacks of images shot during the Depression-era construction of the bridge.
And for good reason: No women were among the 8,700 workers who built what was then the world's longest bridge. It was the same story at the neighboring Golden Gate Bridge, which opened seven months later.
Fast-forward three-quarters of a century to the new, $6.4 billion eastern span construction site. Today, you'll find a handful of female pile drivers, electricians, laborers, ironworkers and high-ranking engineers, an indication that some things have changed while others, frustratingly, have not.
"I'm astounded that I get paid to do this job," said pile driver Beth Hubbard, who worked on the new span and now commutes from her Walnut Creek home across the Bay Bridge to a job at the Port of San Francisco. "I tried other things. I drove truck. I worked at a dry cleaners. But it didn't pay the bills. There aren't a lot of jobs that pay a living wage where you don't need a four-year degree."
In the 1930s, women were considered physically and mentally incapable of doing traditional male work, and those who flouted convention were called immoral, said historian Sam Redman with the UC Berkeley Regional Oral History Office.
World War II set aside those taboos. Men were off
The subsequent women's movement, new anti-discrimination laws and changing social attitudes have led to broader career opportunities.
"Growing up, I never saw myself as, 'Oh, I'm a girl and I can't do it,'" said 37-year-old civil engineer Karen Wang, the top liaison on the bridge team between the construction contractors and Caltrans. "Girl or boy, whether it was sports or whatever, if you had the skills and you were willing to work hard, you could do anything."
That door is only cracked open, though.
In jobs such as carpenters, construction equipment operators, electricians and plumbers, women barely represent 1 percent of the national workforce.
A July survey taken of people working for contractors on $9 billion worth of federally funded construction projects in California -- including the Bay Bridge -- shows women were at 2 percent, excluding clerical employees.
Women fare better in engineering. Among civil engineers in the U.S., 14 percent were women in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Stacey DelVecchio, the president-elect for the Society of Women Engineers and a managing engineer for Caterpillar, said engineering often is presented to girls as hard work, rather than as an opportunity to help others -- a message they would find more appealing.
Meg Vasey, director of Oakland-based Tradeswomen, said many young women fear workplace discrimination if they choose the trades.
These impressions persist, despite technological advances that have curtailed the need for brute strength on large construction projects. While sexism is present, crude commentary and bottom-patting generally is no longer tolerated.
"Having fed my family for 25 years working with the tools, it's a great way to make a living," Vasey said. "But it's a different way of life. It's important to have the right expectations and know what you are getting into."
Government programs have sought to break down barriers for women, but those have had limited success, Vasey said.
California voters struck down affirmative action in 1996, which stripped away most state funding for training and recruiting initiatives for women in the trades. In addition, federal rules that require "good faith efforts" to hire women for publicly funded contracts have not had much effect.
Still, women are light-years ahead of the 1930s Bay Bridge project, where they were relegated to eye-candy poses with male politicians.