These Women Are Dominating In Traditionally Male-Driven Industries

We're told as little girls that we can do anything when we grow up, but when you look around at certain industries, it's clear there aren't many role models to encourage us. Female marines are still struggling to prove they can take on combat roles. There are far fewer of us in the STEM fields (a mere 24%). And, in 2015, there are only 23 female CEOs of S&P 500 companies and 20 women senators. With news this week that the gender wage gap closed by a single penny over the past year, it can sometimes feel like we're just spinning our wheels.

Thankfully, there are women out there making inroads into typically male-dominated industries. They aren't CEOs or founders of big tech companies. They don't bring home seven-figure salaries. But, they are making big waves in their own ways.

Ahead, three stories of women who are shattering their own glass ceilings and proving that we can do anything men can do (and often, we can even do it better).
1 of 3
Nina Cleverly, Electrician For Mister Sparky, Houston, TX

How did you decide to become an electrician?
"I was in my early 20s, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I was going to have to pay for college myself. Living in Alberta, Canada, you’re surrounded by so many people working in the oil fields in different trades. I knew a lot of guys my age were picking up a trade and having a skill to take with them for the rest of their lives. I just sort of figured, Okay, well, if they can do it, then I can do that, too."

Where did you start out your training?
"I actually started out in an oil field... I really didn’t have any tool knowledge whatsoever. I was...a little bit of a girly girl."

Were you the only woman working out there?
"I was the only girl on-site. There were electricians and welders and all sorts of other trades there. That was actually the year I got married, and two weeks after my wedding, we got shipped up north to camp. I was the only female in that camp, except for the kitchen staff."

Did you feel like you had to prove yourself more because you're a woman?
"I think...I tried more to blend in... I don’t like to be on the spot or at the center of attention."

You work for a commercial company in Houston. Are customers surprised that you’re a female electrician?
"Yeah, they're like, 'Oh, you are a girl. Oh, my God. They said they were sending a girl, and you're a girl. Here you are.' Yes, here I am."

Are you the only woman at your company?
"No, actually we have one other female technician who’s working with us out of our Dallas/Fort Worth location. But I don’t know about any other females other than us two."

Do you ever get lonely and wish there were other women to work with?
"I don’t know... I worked with other women journeymen in Alberta, and that was fun because we would be on construction sites together and we could just kind of be girls as we were wiring houses. As funny as that sounds...we got to talk about things that women like to talk about together. But apart from that, I get along with everybody, and the guys who I work with are just such a great group of guys, so it doesn’t really bother me too much."

It doesn’t seem like you’ve come up against much sexism in the industry. Is that true?
"I feel like I have been fortunate because I've had a lot of people along the way who have been supportive. And if I needed help, I felt like I was always able to ask and get it. I've been told by a lot of guys that I've worked with, after the fact, that I was the first girl they ever worked with. They would say, 'I was a little worried at first, but I just want to say that I’d work with you any day on any site.'"

Would you recommend this career to other women?
"Oh, absolutely. Yeah, I think electrical is a phenomenal trade, and there are so many areas that you really could go into; it’s very, very versatile. I remember when I was going through trade school, we had a guy from the apprenticeship board, and the first thing he told us was to make sure you don’t stick with one company as an apprentice your whole way through training. You want to branch out and try the different industries. There are different areas to electrical, and [it’s important to] find out what you like and what works for you.

"I feel like I really had a broad spectrum of experience and figured out that I loved being part of the service industry. I love helping people. I think that there’s room for anybody, all different personalities really, and it’s just about figuring out what you want to do... You can take it as far as you want."

What’s the worst part of the job?
"The worst part, I would say, is when you're finding your can be very physically draining, especially when you're working very, very long hours. It can get extremely exhausting."

And what’s the best part?
"Overall...there is a real sense of accomplishment, because it is challenging. It’s a learned skill. You start out, and you don’t really know very much, and you're just constantly learning, and it’s very hands-on. You’re constantly creating new goals and reaching them and building your skill level. And there is just a huge sense of satisfaction that goes along with that."
2 of 3
Ven Lai, Creative Designer, Chevy Color & Trim Studio, General Motors, Detroit, MI

You have a degree in
fashion design and applied textiles from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. How did you end up working for General Motors?
"One of my instructors had a contact at General Motors, and that’s how I got the job here. It was very new to me, because living near San Francisco, I didn’t drive. So I had to be pretty honest when it came to the interviews. I said, 'Look, I don’t have any background in automotive whatsoever. I don’t know how to drive a car. But what I do know is I have strengths in design. It's just a different discipline of design.'"

What’s your day-to-day, or month-to-month like?
"I work with a team of designers in North America, and our studio is divided by brands. I work on Chevrolet passenger cars and crossovers, and I have a team of designers that I mentor and oversee.

"I also work with the teams in Korea, Brazil, Europe, China, and Australia. I was on assignment last year to Korea... I make sure across the world that Chevrolet color and trim looks like Chevrolet color and trim, no matter where you bought the car or where the car was designed.

"It's really a collaborative effort. Color and trim designers work within both the exterior and interior studios. For example, if you look at the new Chevrolet Spark, we pick a stitch color, the seat color...we also create a palette of exterior colors that fit the vehicle and fit the products. So on the Spark we picked a really vibrant, fresh lime green that’s so appropriate for its personality and the customer.

"We work with our fabrication shops to do mock-ups. Every car you see, we have mock-ups, because we work [on new models] like three or four years out. And we also do trend forecasting. It's so varied, it's crazy."

You were saying that part of your job is mentoring young designers. Have you found that, when you're hiring, many designers are unsure what it will be like to work in automotive design?

"Yeah. I think for any young designer (or any young professional), it's really hard to figure out what your entire career path is going be in one interview. We do our really be transparent about what the job is. But in the same way that I'm trying to explain it to you, it's really hard to do in one session. You know, we interview a lot of designers, and I think we really pull the best out of the lot. And what really makes a designer stand out in our team is the ability to adapt and be really flexible, because this job is ever-changing."

We consider the auto industry such a male-dominated field. Does it feel that way in the color and trim department?

"It's something that I honestly don’t think of, just because it's not an issue. It's absolutely not an issue. Our CEO, Mary Barra, is a woman. Our studio director is a woman. We have managers who are women. It's just not something that we think about consciously day-to-day. And we have such diversity, not just in gender, but also in talent and in background. And we just want designers who are incredibly talented. And that’s what it really comes down to."

What’s the worst part of your job?
"The wait. The wait is hands-down the worst part of the job. It’s three, four years before you see your product on the road and you can share it with your family and your friends. Things are hyper-confidential at GM, so you can't even say you're working on a car, let alone talk about it at all before it’s released."

And what’s the best part of your job?
"The best part is the gratification when the wait is over. There are days when I go to a grocery store and I pull up next to a car I've worked on, and a part of me is like, Let me tell that person about this car. Did they see the stitch colors? Did they see the pattern? But it would be really weird and creepy."
3 of 3
Caley Shoemaker, Head Distiller, Hangar 1 Vodka, Alameda, CA

How did you get interested in distilling?
"I sort of fell into it. I have an art degree, and I spent a lot of time working in art galleries, but when the recession hit, the gallery work wasn’t really there. So I was looking for a job as a stopgap, and there was a distillery in Colorado that was hiring. I started doing tours there part-time, just to sort of fill space, and I just fell in love with the whole process. I kept begging to apprentice and finally got to learn how to distill, and I’ve learned a ton of things since then. It was one of those things I would have never guessed would [be] my passion, but it ended up being that way."

Was it hard to convince them to make you an apprentice?
"Yeah, it definitely took some convincing. I was working with a bunch of guys, and there was one other girl, and that girl only did admin stuff. They were a little bit skeptical. But, you know, it took one day of being super-shorthanded and they were like, ‘Well, we really need the help, and Caley really wants to learn,’ and they actually gave me a chance and saw that I could pick it up real quick."

What’s your day-to-day like?
"It’s a little bit nuts because I have so many different responsibilities...filling the still, running the still, keeping track of alcohol production and quality control. Today, I’m installing some shelves in our laboratory area. Wednesday, I’ll be switching out some equipment. You’ve got to be handy and able to repair stuff, but you've also got to be good at math to calculate tank volumes. It’s fun because it’s really varied from day to day."

Are there challenges inherent to being a woman in the industry?
"Being a woman in any management position, I think, definitely has its challenges. There are frequent times when I’m managing vendors who are men, who automatically assume that I don’t understand. I mean stupid stuff, like boiler installations, or steam piping; there’s a note of condescension that comes out a lot that I find frustrating. Women naturally want to be nice, and sometimes I have to push out of my comfort zone and be a little more firm than I want. I think there are two perceptions for women: You’re either a pushover, or you’re bitchy... How [to] be that cool in-between is definitely my biggest challenge.

"When it comes to distilling itself, I think that it’s a great spot for women; we have such great sensory abilities, so casing and blending and all that is something we’re naturally great at. And I think that men distillers in general are really accepting."

Would you recommend other women get into the industry?
"Oh absolutely. I think it would be great. Even with a few women distillers, we’ve got this little group, and we all get to know each other and talk via social media and at events. It’s really fun to see, sort of the brotherhood of women — or sisterhood, if you will."

What’s the worst part of your job?
"I absolutely hate scrubbing floors, and I hate having to do admin, invoice preparation, and whatnot. So I’m looking forward to having more employees to help me out with those things, but I’ll never stop doing them, because you've got to do everything."

And what’s the best part of your job?
"Oh gosh, I don’t know. There are so many things I love to do... I really like that I go to work, and when I go home, I know that I’ve made something...I’ve accomplished something tangible that I can see."

More from Work & Money


R29 Original Series