Leading the Field

Making strides in their industries

Leading The Field 1 Main

When SHAUNA MCNEIL jumps down from the hazmat tanker she drives, people often do a double take. It’s a reaction that McNeil, like a lot of other local women who work in male-dominated fields, is familiar with.

Such reactions, they hope, will become a thing of the past as the number of women in male-dominated fields continues to rise. “A lot of women are transitioning to men’s fields because for so long we’ve been boxed into the role of homemaker, nursing, and jobs of that nature,” McNeil says. “Now we are at a point where we’re branching out and showing people that we have the strength to do whatever we put our minds to. We want everyone to understand that we have power.”

Locally, the number of women working in male-dominated industries is increasing, which reflects the national trends. ASHLEY LOMBOY, global information security manager at Corning Incorporated, ANDREA MURPHY, a UBS senior vice president for a wealth adviser, and DENA LARRY, a sergeant on patrol for the Wilmington Police Department, have seen the number of female colleagues grow over the years.

Leading The Field 2There has been a significant increase in the number of women attending and graduating from Cape Fear Community College’s trade programs, including barbering, machining, engine repair, electrician, lineworker, trucking, and others, according to ERIN EASTON, the college’s workforce training coordinator. Women are also entering the local construction industry in record numbers, according to TAYLOR KING, owner of Taylored Construction Services and member of the Wilmington-Cape Fear chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction.

Today, 40% of physicians and doctors are women, as are 39% of lawyers, 35% of financial advisers, 27% of computer and math workers, 16% of architects and engineers, and 16% of police officers, according to a 2023 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though the number of women in the trades is significantly lower, they are entering these male-dominated fields as well: 10% of industrial truck and tractor drivers, 4% of construction workers, and 2% of electricians are women.

As the statistics above show, the work world is bigger for women today. The reasons for the change are multifaceted. They range from the personal – women now have female role models they can turn to for advice and inspiration – to the cultural and economic.

For instance, national and state diversity initiatives have played a key role in the hiring of women in male-dominated fields, according to ULKU CLARK, director of the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Cyber Defense Education.

Current economics have also made these jobs accessible to women, especially in the trades where employers are desperate for skilled workers, Eastman says.

“To fit into a male-dominated workplace, you must harness what you want to do and move forward,” King says. “Know you will always have obstacles in the way and decide to overcome them.”

One of those obstacles is the fact that women in male-dominated industries often have to prove themselves. Doing so requires upping their mental game in whatever way works for them.

Lomboy, for instance, reminds herself that she is the expert before meeting with male colleagues, which she says changes the tone of the conversation right from the start.

Women in law enforcement and the trades might also need to show their male colleagues that they can handle dangerous and physically demanding situations, that they don’t need protection, and/or won’t add to their male co-workers’ workloads. Or, like CAITLYN CARRONE, a barber, says, they may need to convince new customers that they have the skill to do their job every day.

“If I know I want something, I need to make sure I’m the best candidate,” Larry says. “I get extra training and education, even if I have to pay for it. You always set yourself up so you can’t be overlooked, so there’s not a reason for them to tell you no.”

Women’s networking groups are another important source of support for women in traditionally male jobs. Through them, women learn about major issues affecting their field, strategies to deal with situations that arise, and negative circumstances they have been subjected to without realizing it, Clark says.

“Other women have similar challenges and responsibilities that are similar to yours,” adds Murphy. “They know what it’s like to doubt themselves or to have children. You can ask them, ‘How do you get through this?’”

While Wilmington has a number of networking associations dedicated to women in male-dominated professions such as Cape Fear Women in Tech and Women in Construction, there are similar groups available online.

Through online groups for female truckers, McNeil meets other women who understand her frustrations, give the female perspective of working for different companies, suggest different ways to solve problems, and provide a voice of reason, she says.

Despite the challenges, women who work in traditionally male jobs say their careers are rewarding and fulfilling, and they would like to see more women join them. To do so requires a multifaceted approach. First, businesses should be intentional about hiring women. They should also include women on interview teams so unrecognized biases don’t compromise hiring decisions, Lomboy recommends.

Companies should also ensure their cultures welcome and value women, adds Clark. That means listening to ideas and promoting qualified women, she adds. Otherwise, they will leave the workplace and sometimes the field.

Increasing awareness of women who work in male-dominated fields is equally important. Giving presentations for middle and high school students, building STEM clubs that include girls, and creating pipelines and internships for girls to enter traditionally male careers are all strategies that are needed if girls are to know about and pursue careers in male-dominated fields.

“Society says women can’t do the hard jobs that men do,” Larry says. “We are just as capable, and women show that every day. When girls see these women, they say, ‘If she can, why can’t I?’”

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Categories: Features