Overcoming Gender Barriers: Women Are Fighting Pirates and Firing Mortars

Women are making inroads into formerly male-dominated occupations

By Lisa Petrillo Mar 21, 2016

2015 was the year women broke into two of the most powerful boys’ clubs in the world: the National Football League (NFL) and the race for the U.S. presidency.

When the Arizona Cardinals hired Jen Welter to be the first female coach in the NFL, a 96-year-old barrier fell.

And the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton—currently the leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination—goes beyond politics, as she too now serves as a role model for young women making their way in formerly all-male domains.

“There will now be a whole generation of girls who believe they can become a female president,” said Carol Brown, division chief of training for Boulder Fire-Rescue in Boulder, Co.
Unfortunately, a female presidential candidate and Welter’s historic hiring do not mean bias against women in traditionally male jobs has disappeared.

Firefighting is a good example of a male-dominated occupation, one that has historically been considered a “nontraditional” job for women. A nontraditional occupation for women is one in which women make up 25 percent or less of total employment, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Firefighting is one field which was initially very resistant to hiring women.

In 1993, Rosemary Bliss became the nation’s first female fire chief when she took the helm of the fire department for San Francisco suburb Tiburon, Calif.

Despite progress, there are still few female firefighters. In 2012, just 3.4 percent of all U.S. firefighters—about 10,000—were female, according to a National Fire Protection Association study.

One obstacle to building more diverse fire departments is that local governments control emergency services and oversee hiring and firing, said James Ridley, director of education, training and human resources for the International Association of Fire Fighters, an organization representing 300,000 U.S. and Canadian firefighters. That means, he said, that all hiring is run by each separate department, andapproved by municipalities, across the nation. There is no overarching body that enforces diversity requirements or expectations.

Women like Boulder Fire-Rescue’s Brown, who is also vice president of the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services, are working to get more women interested in firefighting.

Speaking at school career days and summer camp programs are good ways to get young women interested, Brown said. “It doesn’t take much of your time or much investment, and it does require thinking long-term, but I can tell you after 25 years in the industry, it is effective.”

Nontraditional jobs for women generally have relatively high entry-level wages, paying $20 to $30 per hour while offering career paths leading to leadership positions—one of the reasons that Riki Lovejoy gravitated toward the construction trades 25 years ago.

Lovejoy now owns a construction business in San Antonio and is president of the National Association of Women in Construction. Women interested in breaking into nontraditional fields, she suggested, should consider acquiring skills through local educational institutions. Certifications and degrees—or other official documents of competency—can help women break into male-dominated fields, Lovejoy said.

Some occupations that were considered nontraditional for women in 1988 were no longer nontraditional by 2008, DOL research found, including purchasing managers, chemists, physicians, lawyers, athletes, mail carriers, court bailiffs, correctional officers and meat-processing workers.

Combat is no longer off-limits to women, either.

The U.S. Defense Department announced in December 2015 that women would be allowed in all military combat roles. Women can now serve as Army Rangers, Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Corps infantry women and Air Force paratroopers.

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter pledged that women will be allowed to drive tanks, fire mortars and lead infantry soldiers into combat.

Women are already fighting pirates on the high seas. In February 2016, U.S. Navy Capt. Heidi Agle of the USNS Spearhead was commanding international anti-piracy training exercises off the west African coast when an oil tanker was hijacked. Agle coordinated the navies of Ghana, Togo and Nigeria in the successful recapture of the oil tanker.

Yet many jobs are still thought of as nontraditional for women. The list includes architects, computer programmers, software and hardware engineers, detectives, chefs, barbers, clergy, engineers, repair technicians, construction and building inspectors, railroad conductors, machinists, truck drivers, firefighters, pilots, and construction workers.

Changing the culture of male-dominated workplaces is difficult even in professions with high-profile efforts to recruit more women.

“Sometimes the talent management program itself is biased,” said Amelia Costigan, director of the New York City-based Catalyst Information Center, a nonprofit organization advocating progress for women through workplace inclusion.

For example, there is strong evidence that women working in science, technology, engineering and math fields are sometimes harassed out of their professions by male colleagues and supervisors, according to a 2014 report by the Center for Talent Innovation.

In these fields, “it’s a culture that makes women feel like an outsider,” Costigan said. Women sometimes report “feeling pushed out by the dominant culture, the price for not being one of the guys—[this happens in] the tech industry in particular.”

As the business case for hiring more women in nontraditional occupations gains traction, HR professionals and hiring managers can do their part to help women succeed in jobs where few have worked before.

Tapping into professional association mentoring programs and feeder programs from educational institutions are two approaches, Brown said. Hiring specialized consultants is another, according to Costigan.

Catalyst’s inclusion program is known by the acronym EACH, which stands for empowerment, accountability, courage and humility. The organization offers annual awards for businesses that meet certain criteria in improving gender diversity in their workplaces and in leadership positions.

“For some companies, boosting diversity is part of the business strategy,” Costigan said. “People in the C-suite won’t get their bonus if they don’t achieve milestones in [diversity] efforts. There is accountability.”

Lisa Petrillo is a freelance writer based in San Diego.


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect