Epidemiologist, Tilesetter, Entrepreneur!

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What do an architect, mechanical engineer and HVAC technician all have in common? If they’re female, they’re part of the changing role of women in the workplace, the United States Department of Labor says.

Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, was one of six women and 29 men selected by NASA (from 8,000 applicants) in 1978 in its expansion of the astronaut corps. “It was tougher for a woman, but the reason was really the surrounding culture at the time, the culture at NASA…and also the culture in the country…Of roughly 4,000 technical employees at the Johnson Space Center, I think there were only four women, so that gives you a sense of how male the culture was. When we arrived, we more than doubled the number of women with PhDs at the center,” said Dr. Ride.

An occupation employing less than 25 percent of men or women is considered nontraditional. Such jobs for women run the gamut from engineers, computer repairers, building inspectors, machinists and truck drivers to construction occupations, computer programmers and pilots. In America, 3.3 percent of firefighters are women, and 24.5 percent of architects are women.
Women have clearly made inroads in some careers previously considered nontraditional. In 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that 36.4 percent of legal professionals were women, and 40.8 percent of physicians and surgeons were women in 2019. Still, a wide range of nontraditional choices exists for women in 2014.

The science, technology, engineering and math fields, or STEM, are a growing cluster of careers with great potential for advancement. Skill sets required for these areas parallel those used in careers such as event planning, nursing and personal care. Attributes common to nurses and civil engineers are the ability to actively listen and communicate clearly; a deep knowledge of science and math; equipment monitoring and maintenance; judgment and decision-making; and quality control analysis. Construction managers and event planners share critical thinking; time management; social perceptiveness; operational and systems analysis; and management of time and material resources. Common skill sets for firefighters and personal care aides include active listening; critical thinking; negotiation; coordination and physical strength; and management of resources.

But a shared skill set is not a cure-all for the challenges brought on by change. Stereotypes will always exist. A female mentor might be harder to find; however, professional associations such as Society of Women Engineers, IEEE Women in Engineering and those in other disciplines provide support and connection to women in many fields. Women and men have different communication styles; it’s important for women to arm themselves with skills required to communicate well with the diversity of the global workforce; think strong interpersonal skills, including body language, a firm handshake and assertiveness. Smart CEOs know that women possess the skills described here–and more–that make their companies successful and profitable. Implementation of family-friendly policies, recognition of accomplishments, increased compensation and a defined career ladder lead to retention of the women in whom they have invested training time and dollars.

Entrepreneurship, combined with education and professional expertise, is another vehicle for the ambitious woman seeking self-determination, work/life balance and pay equity. Inc.com notes that “in recent years women entrepreneurs have been moving rapidly into manufacturing, construction, and other industrial fields.” Jan Hohn, award-winning ceramic tile installer and owner of Hohn and Hohn, Inc., of St. Paul, Minnesota, shares, “I established my business 20 years ago as the result of a DIY project and a contractor’s comment that ‘you do tile work better than most of the guys out there.’ When my children were small, I had the flexibility of setting my own hours, and my clients understood. In many areas, I’m self-taught, but I’ve gained skills, industry knowledge and mentoring from our international professional association. My skills in sales, communication, problem solving, paying attention to detail and creating solutions for clients have all been valuable to my business. I encourage women to identify their skills, support and encourage each other, and not hesitate to pursue a career in a nontraditional field.”

Nontraditional careers are wide open to women in all phases of their lives. For women armed with education and focus, as was Sally Ride, the sky’s really the limit. ■

Sources: achievement.org, dol.gov, swe.org, forbes.com, inc.com, seekcareers.org and nawbo.org.


Many STEM careers fall within the Department of Labor’s classification of nontraditional paths. Key skills for these career choices include:
• Analytical skills: research, develop a project plan and timeline, draw conclusions from research results.
• Science skills: break down a complex scientific system into smaller parts, recognize cause and effect relationships, defend opinions using facts.
• Mathematical skills: calculations and measurements.
• Attention to detail: follow a blueprint, record data accurately.
• Technical skills: troubleshoot a problem, repair a machine, debug an operating system.
• Communication and cooperation skills: listen to customer needs, interact with project partners.
• Creative abilities: solve problems, develop new ideas and solutions.