Non-Traditional Careers for Women

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Meet the Experts

Portrait of Elizabeth Perry-Sizemore

Elizabeth Perry-Sizemore

Elizabeth Perry-Sizemore is the Catherine Ehrman Thoresen and William Thoresen Chair of Economics in the Department of Economics and Business at Randolph College. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Randolph-Macon Woman's College, she earned her masters and a PhD in economics from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and has been teaching in the discipline since 2004. She is a former assistant dean head the current head of the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Randolph College. As part of her work, she directs and coordinates undergraduate student research in economics and the social and behavioral sciences.

Portrait of Nina MacLaughlin

Nina MacLaughlin

Nina MacLaughlin is the author of Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter (W.W. Norton and Company; March 16, 2015), a personal story about her journey from Internet publishing to a job in the trades as a professional carpenter. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, MacLaughlin had parlayed an degree in English and Classical Studies into a position as the online managing editor for an alternative weekly in Boston before abruptly leaving that position in 2008. As she would later explain on NPR's “ All Things Considered,” the breaking point was a feature on the world's 100 unsexiest men. “Just sitting there, making sure all the numbers were matching up and the blurbs were matching the right men, I just thought, ‘I can't do this anymore.'” She currently lives in Cambridge, MA, works for a contractor in the Boston area. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Believer, and the Boston Globe.

In 2008, Mark Zuckerberg hired Sheryl Sandberg away from Google to become the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook. Five years later, Sandberg made her own headlines and captured the top spot on bestseller lists with Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, a polemical memoir that helped redefine conventional thinking around women in business, society, and the culture at large. By early 2014, the Obama administration had formally ended a longstanding ban on women in combat; Janet Yellen had taken over as chair of the historically male-dominated Federal Reserve; and Google was in the process of launching Women Techmakers, a global initiative aimed at steering women into the digital economy.

These developments reflect a reality in which opportunities for women in fields previously dominated by men are expanding. Women are increasingly being encouraged to pursue non-traditional careers — in military, business and finance, science and technology and the blue collar trades. We'll examine the non-traditional careers opening up for women, explore the personal and financial benefits of moving into these fields, and detail the proliferation of resources aimed at facilitating this transition.

Traditional Careers vs. Non-Traditional Careers

The scope of what constitutes traditional versus non-traditional careers for women is defined both by perception and reality, by the cultural norms that inform a woman's decision to favor certain jobs over others, and by structural barriers to entry in distinct fields. In the award-winning AMC series Mad Men, for example, we see these forces dramatized: men like Don Draper and Roger Sterling are the executives, the bosses, the locus of power in this fictionalized world of 1950s-1960s advertising. Women play supporting roles as secretaries, except when they don't: Office manager Joan Harris and copywriter Peggy Olson exist as non-traditional archetypes, the proverbial exceptions that prove a rule that is at once structural and societal.

Or, for a more contemporary dramatization, who do you picture when you think of a dental hygienist, a man or a woman? How about a dentist? The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, from 2014, indicates that 96.6% of all dental hygienists were indeed female, as compared to 29.1% of all dentists, even though there are no technical gender qualifications for either job.

As Nina MacLaughlin, a journalist-turned-carpenter who documented her experiences in Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, observers, “You don't see a lot of women loading sheets of plywood and a deck's worth of lumber. And, if you don't see any women carpenters or plumbers or electricians when you're growing up, then it doesn't feel like an option.” In fact, women only account for 1.7% of carpenters employed in the US, according to the BLS. Using the same BLS data, here are some other illustrations of traditional vs. non-traditional jobs for women as currently constituted:

Traditional Career
Nurse Practitioners: 91.5% women
Secretaries and Administrative Assistants: 94.2% women
Preschool and Kindergarten Teachers: 97.2% women
Waiters and Waitresses: 71.8% women
Social Workers: 81.9% women
Flight Attendants: 75.8% women
Non-Traditional Career
Physicians and Surgeons: 36.7% women
Computer Programmers: 21.4% women
Firefighters: 5.7% women
Chefs and Head Cooks: 21.4% women
Sheet Metal Workers: 5.2% women
Aircraft Pilots and Flight Engineers: 7.2% women

The Advantages of Looking Beyond a Traditional Career Path

The US Department of Labor defines a non-traditional career as one in which 25% or less of those employed across the field are women. That encompasses a range of occupations, from architects and civil engineers, to computer programmers, mechanical engineers, and detectives. Some of the once male-dominated jobs for women that had ceased to fall under the Department of Labor's non-traditional designation during the two-decade period of 1988-2008 include chemists, lawyers, physicians, and correctional officers.

Along with changing social and cultural conventions, there are a number of reasons for this shift, including economic pressures, financial incentives, and demand for skilled workers. Here are a few facts to consider:

The percentage of women who provide either the sole or primary source of income in households with children under the age of 18 rose from 11% to 40%, from 1960-2011.

Source: Pew Research Group

Of these “breadwinner” women, 5.1 million (37%) are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands, and 8.6 million (63%) are single mothers.

Source: Pew Research Group

The percentage of women who provide either the sole or primary source of income in households with children under the age of 18 rose from 11% to 40%, from 1960-2011.

Source: McKinsey & Company

Women earn an estimated 84% of what similarly employed men make on average — a 16-cent pay gap. However, younger women in the workforce are now earning closer to 93% of what similarly employed men make on average — a 7-cent pay gap.

Source: Pew Research Group

Jobs in which men are traditionally employed typically pay 20-30% more than jobs traditional held by women.

Source: Wider Opportunities for Women.

In 2010, the average weekly earnings of women who were full-time wage and salary workers were $669, or 81% of men's $824. When comparing the median weekly earnings of persons aged 16 to 24, young women earned 95% of what young men earned, $422 and $443, respectively.

Source: US Department of Labor

Women comprised almost half, or 47%,, or the total US labor force in 2010, and are projected to account for 51% of the increase in total labor force growth between 2008 and 2018.

Source: US Department of Labor

Breaking Into Male-Dominated Careers

The challenges facing women who may seek non-traditional employment opportunities vary depending on the job, field and sector. For example, in occupations that require professional school training, like law, medicine, and dentistry, career paths are fairly uniform and well defined. The same is generally true for most technical fields, like engineering, computer science, and programming. And, as the military has become more and more open to women, recruiters have been tasked with actively seeking out qualified candidates.

However, for carpenters, electricians, plumbers, welders, and other highly-paid blue collar tradespeople, the route to employment may not be as defined. It can take the form of a vocational training program, an apprenticeship, or some combination of the two. Here are five strategies for women seeking non-traditional career paths.

  • Think Outside the Proverbial Box

    Six months after Nina MacLaughlin quit her publishing job in 2008, she was more or less adrift. “Journalism had made sense as a career because I'd studied English and classics in college, and carpentry was snot something I'd ever thought about or planned on. I felt a vague crave for something that didn't have to do with a computer screen. Six months later I was worried that I might never get a job again, when I found an ad on Craig's List for ‘Carpenter's Assistant: Women Strongly Encouraged to Apply.' I thought, ‘this is it, this is exactly what I've been waiting for.' I applied, spent a day audition for the job, and have now been doing it for six-plus years.
  • Choose the Right School

    As an undergraduate at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in the mid-'90s, Dr. Elizabeth Perry-Sizemore was well aware that she women's faces were few and far between in her chosen major of economics. But, being at a small, then single-sex, liberal arts college, helped bolster her resolve. “There were a number of things that helped me to develop confidence as an economists when I was an undergraduate. One of the economics department faculty members was a woman. And the fact that it was a small school with intimate class sizes encouraged me to ask questions. I was invited to offer answers. And, there were a variety of ways for me to demonstrate my understanding of the subject and to grow that understanding.
  • Find a Mentor

    Perry-Sizemore went on to find a female mentor in the econ department at Virginia Tech, where she earned her master's and PhD in economics. Cultivating a relationship with a mentor, male or female, can be useful in almost any field or career. “It's reassuring to know that the things you're experiencing are not unique, that other people have faced similar challenges,” Perry-Sizemore explains. “There are other people have been through the process of figuring out how to navigate the challenges of being a minority in a discipline. Having a person like that in your life remains helpful as you encounter more professional opportunities and have to make decisions about the direction for your career.
  • Use Your Networking skills

    Perry-Sizemore and MacLaughlin may have very different careers, but they both agree that finding ways to network can be the key to a successful career. “My situation was unique in that I was lucky to find a posting for the perfect job,” MacLaughlin admits. “But, the advise I would give is to locate a contractor in your area, invite him or her out for a beer or coffee, or find some other way to approach the person. The community of contractors is pretty small, and that networking could be a good way to break in.” Perry-Sizemore adds, “We have so many graduates who are happy to network with our students and to help them make connections. I sense that very often our students get excited about this, but they don't start using these resources quickly enough. Your ideas don't have to be perfectly formed before you start networking. It's a process that you can start much earlier in your education.
  • Seek Professional Organizations

    Whether it is economics, carpentry, astrophysics, or automotive engineering, there are likely professional organizations that can offer career guidance and advice. As MacLaughlin notes, “There are starting to be more organizations specifically for women that offer classes to help bring women into the trades, or to simply instill that knowledge about how to work with tools.” Perry-Sizemore points to the American Economic Association's Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Professions, a group that provides mentoring and career advice that can be helpful to men as well as women

Women in STEM Careers

In the simplest terms, STEM is just an acronym that stands for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” Beyond that, STEM has grown to embody crucial sectors of the economy, and employment within that sector, from jobs in computing and information technology, to industrial engineering in the automotive and aeronautics design and development, to everything from healthcare management and homeland security. Basically, if it has a technological component, you could argue it's got some STEM in it.

Why Pursue a STEM Career?

Much like the so-called “space race” of the 1960s, which helped stimulate investment and growth in the tech sectors of the economy, the emergence of STEM as an area of concern in education and the economy has created new programs and avenues for career advancement. In many cases, these initiatives have targeted women and other groups who are under-represented in traditionally male-dominated, math- and science-intensive fields. In other words, national investment in the STEM sectors creates new opportunities for women in non-traditional careers. Here's some data to round out that picture:

Job Growth

The BLS projects that jobs in STEM fields will grow by 13% across the board through 2022. That amounts to roughly one million additional jobs, for an overall number of nine million jobs in the STEM sectors by 2022.

Higher Salaries

While average annual income varies from job to job and field to field within the STEM ecosystem, the latest BLS reports indicate that STEM occupations have a median annual wage of nearly $76,000, or more than double the $35,080 that all other workers earned yearly as of May 2013.

Transferable Skills

The nature of STEM offers a fair amount of flexibility in career paths and the potential for rewarding mid-career shifts. For example, a computer programmer or software engineer can find employment in business, healthcare, marketing, social science, and many other fields.

Lower Wage Gap

A recent White House report from the Office of Science and Technology Policy, notes that “Women in STEM jobs earn 33% more than those in non-STEM occupations and experience a smaller wage gap relative to men.” A report from the US Department of Commerce, Economics, and Statistics Administration titled “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation,” translates that number into dollars and cents. “On average, men and women earn $36.34 and $31.11 per hour, respectively, in STEM jobs higher than the $24.47 that men earn and $19.26 that women earn, on average, in other occupations.”

Targeted Initiatives

In a 2013 White House report on a “5-Year Strategic Plan” for STEM education, the National Science and Technology Council concluded that, “While women constitute the majority of students on college campuses and roughly 46 percent of the workforce, they represent less than one in five bachelor's recipients in fields like computer science and engineering, and hold only 25 percent of STEM jobs.” That's the bad news. The good news is that that date and the reality it represents has created the impetus for new educational and employment initiatives targeted at improving the participation and success of women in STEM programs, and for incentives that encourage women to enter STEM fields and for employers to hire more women.

Where Women Are Already Working

Although it is true that women are under-represented in computer science, engineering, and other STEM sectors of the economy, there are other areas in which women have already made significant inroads. In fact, there are areas of the STEM economy, such as nurse practitioner and data entry, which have been traditionally dominated by women and remain so. The chart below offers an overview of some of STEM in which women are thriving.

Occupation Percentage of Women Employed
Registered Nurses


Health Practitioner Support Technologists and Technicians


Clinical Laboratory Technologists


Medical Scientists


Financial Managers


Popular STEM Careers

When you dig into the data surrounding jobs in the area of STEM, a few things become apparent. For starters, there is no hard and fast definition of what constitutes a STEM job, beyond the fact that it must incorporate science, technology, engineering, and math. So, if you're using a computer database as a medical records keeper, you're a STEM worker. If you're an elementary school math or science teacher, that too is part of the STEM infrastructure. And, to the extent that much of what falls under the social and behavioral sciences umbrella is science that uses math to perform algorithmic analyses, psychologists, sociologists, and behavioral economists who might work in marketing and advertising are also in the STEM stream.

As a result, a career in STEM fields can require anything from just a high school diploma, to a full PhD with state licensing. It's also abundantly clear that the most popular STEM careers aren't necessarily the highest salaried — in fact, in some cases, they're not even the post highly populated. What's also clear is that, despite the many STEM-affiliated careers, BLS projects the highest percentage of new STEM jobs through 2018 are expected to be in computing at 71% followed by engineering at 16%. The bulk of those computing jobs are in software engineering (27%) and computer networking (21%). The chart below offers an overview of some of the more popular STEM careers, along with BLS data on projected growth through 2022, average annual salary and minimum educational requirements.

Occupation Projected Growth Average Annual Salary Minimum Education
Software Developers 22% $93,350 Bachelor's Degree
Web Developers 20% $62,500 Associate's Degree
Computer Support Specialists 17% $48,900 Associate's or Bachelor's Degree
Information Security Analysts 37% $86,170 Bachelor's Degree
Civil Engineers 20% $79,340 Bachelor's Degree
Accountants 13% $63,550 Bachelor's Degree
Automotive Service Technicians and Mechanics 9% $36,610 High School Diploma
School Psychologist 12% $74,030 PhD

Women in Blue Collar Jobs

If women are underrepresented in many sectors of the core STEM economy, then they appear to be practically non-existent in the traditionally male realm of blue collar work or trades. In large part, this is a cultural historical phenomenon: blue collar work often involves physical labor performed in settings that can be dirty, dusty, or otherwise suboptimal, a combination of factors that reads “masculine.”

For example, as the National Association of Women in Construction reports, “In 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 9,813,000 people working in the construction industry. Of these, 872,000 of them, or 8.9%, were women.” The same BLS data indicates that only .5% of roofers, .7 percent of brickmasons, and 1.6% of pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters were women. Compare that to the 97.2% of preschool and kindergarten teachers, 94.2% of secretaries and administrative assistants, and 91.3% of receptionists and information clerks who are women, and you get a sense of just how striking the disparity is.

There has, however, been movement toward opening blue collar work up to women, largely through outreach efforts by government agencies like the Department of Transportation, which held its first National Dialogue focused Women in Blue Collar Transportation Careers in 2011, and has pledged to “Introduce skills training for women in blue collar transportation careers.” There are also more localized efforts like Non-Traditional Employment for Women, a New York City based organization that aims to, “prepare, train, and place women in careers in the skilled construction, utility, and maintenance trades.”

Top Paying Blue Collar Jobs

One of the advantages of a job in the trades is that, according to BLS data, the gender pay gap is much narrower in the construction industry than then national average, with women earning 93.4% of what men typically make, as opposed to the overall average of 82.1% across all professions. And, blue collar jobs can pay quite well. Below is a rundown of some of the higher average annual salaries you'll find in the trades, according to the latest data from the BLS.

Occupation Average Annual Salary
Boilermakers $56,550
Construction and Building Inspectors $53,450
Electricians $49,840
Plumbers $49,140
Structural Iron and Steel Workers $46,140
Brickmasons and Stonemasons $44,950
Sheet Metal Workers $43,290
Construction Equipment Operators $40, 980
Carpenters $39,940

Types of Blue Collar Jobs

There is no definite definition of what constitutes a blue collar job, but it generally refers to work that requires physical labor in industries like involve construction, installation, repairing. Many jobs in this field are somewhat self-explanatory: carpenters work with wood, hammering nails, framing structures, creating and/or repairing existing structures. Plumbers work with pipes and plumbing, installing new infrastructure for water and gas lines, repairing and/or maintain existing structures. And electricians work with wiring and electrical supplies, installing new wiring and/or repairing existing electrical systems. But, there not all blue collar work is as familiar and easily recognizable. Here are some other job descriptions from the BLS's Occupational Outlook Handbook.

  • Boilermakers

    Boilermakers assemble, install, and repair boilers, closed vats, and other large vessels or containers that hold liquids and gases.
  • Brickmasons, blockmasons, and stonemasons

    Brickmasons, blockmasons, and stonemasons use bricks, concrete blocks, and natural and man-made stones to build fences, walkways, walls, and other structures.
  • Cement Masons and Terrazzo Workers

    Cement Masons and Terrazzo Workers pour, smooth, and finish concrete floors, sidewalks, roads, and curbs. Using a cement mixture, terrazzo workers create durable and decorative surfaces for floors and stairways.
  • Construction and Building Inspectors

    Construction and Building Inspectors ensure that construction meets local and national building codes and ordinances, zoning regulations, and contract specifications.
  • Construction Equipment Operators

    Construction Equipment Operators drive, maneuver, or control the heavy machinery used to construct roads, bridges, buildings, and other structures.
  • Glaziers

    Glaziers install windows, skylights, and other glass products in storefronts and buildings,
  • Sheet Metal Workers

    Sheet Metal Workers fabricate or install products that are made from thin metal sheets, such as ducts used for heating and air conditioning.
  • Structural Iron and Steelworkers

    Structural Iron and Steelworkers install iron or steel beams, girders, and columns to form buildings, bridges, and other structures. They are commonly referred to as ironworkers.
  • Tile and Marble Setters

    Tile and Marble Setters apply hard tile and marble to walls, floors, and other surfaces.

Note: In addition to those trades, blue collar work can include a number of other skilled professions, including firefighters and fire inspectors, grounds maintenance workers, automotive service technicians and mechanics, machinists, furniture makers, and sailors and marine oilers.

Women in the Military

The military services are often portrayed as the last bastion of male domination and it certainly is by almost any measure a career option that historically hasn't been open to women. Yet, women have been serving in the military for quite some time in official capacities, beginning with combat nursing during World War I. In fact, there were even women who served in a semi-official capacity for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, mostly doing laundry and attending to soldiers' needs off away from combat. Then from the mid-20th century up through the start of the 21st century, women have taken on larger and larger roles in the military services, up to and now including combat roles. To put that evolution in perspective, a recent report from the BLS notes that, of the 21.4 million veterans in the “civilian noninstitutional population,” 2.2 million are women, which amounts to roughly ten percent.

Benefits of a Military Career

As of January 2013, the US Department of Defense policy that banned women from most combat roles in the military was essentially lifted by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. That move was prompted by an ACLU-backed lawsuit by four servicewomen who claimed that the effect of the policy had been discriminatory. And, there was widespread recognition at the time that women were already on the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a result, it is expected that all five branches of the military, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marines, will have largely integrated women across the board by the end of 2016.

From a variety of career choices to a steady income, women have a lot to benefit from by pursuing a career in the military. Among the types of enlisted personnel, the BLS lists the following:

Administrative personnel

maintain data and files on personnel, equipment, funds, and other military-related activities. They work in a support area, such as finance, accounting, legal affairs, maintenance, supply, or transportation

Electronic and electrical equipment repair personnel

maintain and repair electronic equipment used by the military. Repairers specialize in an area, such as aircraft electrical systems, computers, optical equipment, communications, or weapons systems. For example, weapons electronic maintenance technicians maintain and repair electronic components and systems that help locate targets and help aim and fire weapons.

Engineering, science, and technical personnel perform

a variety of tasks, such as operating technical equipment, solving problems, and collecting and interpreting information. They typically perform technical tasks in information technology, environmental health and safety, or intelligence.

Healthcare personnel

provide medical services to military personnel and their family members. They may work as part of a patient-service team with doctors, nurses, or other healthcare professionals. Some specialize in providing emergency medical treatment in combat or remote areas.

Human resources development personnel

recruit qualified people into the military, place them in suitable occupations, and provide training programs.

The military also employs secretaries, auto mechanics, chefs, and engineers of every sort. In short, it's often thought of as a mirror image of civilian life, only with a uniform and an oath. In fact, given the military's new mission to recruit and integrate more women into its services, a job in the army, navy, air force, coast guard, or marines can be a very effective way of entering two non-traditional careers at once for women who are interested in STEM jobs, blue collar work, and almost anything in between.


American Business Women's Association, a national organization aimed at fostering networking among women from diverse occupations.

Association for Women in Computing, a national organization for women programmers, system analysts, operators, technical writers, Internet specialists, trainers and consultants.

Association for Women Geoscientists, an organization for networking and advancement of women in geoscience professions.

Association for Women in Mathematics, a national organization that promote equality for women in the mathematical sciences.

Association for Women in Science, a national multi-disciplinary organization for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, a standing committee and resource of the American Economic Association.

Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine, a standing committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

IEEE Women in Engineering, the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers resource for women in the field.

National Alliance for Partnership in Equity, a consortium of state and local agencies and organizations dedicated to educational equity and workplace diversity.

National Association of Professional Women, one of the largest networking organizations for professional women.

National Association of Women in Construction, an organization for women in the trades.

National Girls Collaborative Project, an organization "committed to informing and encouraging girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics."

National Institute for Women in Trades, Technology, and Science, an organization that works to close the gender gap in male-dominated careers, such as technology, the trades and law enforcement.

Non-Traditional Employment for Women, a New York-based organization with a national reach for women in the building and construction trades.

Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc. a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting success for women in the trades through education, leadership and mentorship.

Sisters in the Building Trades, a Washington state organization that provides outreach and networking for women in the trades.

Society of Women Engineers, a national group for women in the engineering field.

Tradeswomen, Inc., a California-based advocacy organization for women in the trades.

Wider Opportunities for Women, a Washington DC-based organization for women in the workforce.

"Women and Skilled Careers in Transportation," US Department of Transportation.

"Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math," Minnesota's career, education, and job resource.

Women in Technology, a national professional association for women in the technology industry.

Women's Bureau, US Department of Labor.

Related Careers at a Glance

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