6 Women With Unique Career Paths & How They Chose Them

While gender equality has progressed significantly in the past year, there are still many roadblocks that stand in the way of completely closing the gap. One issue in particular is the array of career options still dominated by males that more women could — and should — be taking advantage of. For example, fields like engineering, computer science, and filmmaking are often filled with people who carry both an X and Y chromosome. In fact, as of 2015, women made up only 12 percent of the engineering workforce, and just 23 percent of the computing workforce. If you think those numbers are low, 2014 statistics showed that female firefighters made up just 3.4 percent of the total workforce.

It’s bold — scary, even — to break the mold. But when you’re a woman seeking a career that has two, or three, or even four males for every female in the field, sometimes that’s just what you need to do: take the path less followed.

In partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard, we asked women in unique, mostly male-dominated industries about their inspiring careers and how they chose them. Read on for some serious career advice you won’t get anywhere else.

Kimberly Vargas, Yeoman Petty Officer Second Class

What People Think She Does vs. What She Actually Does: “I am a Yeoman Petty Officer Second Class. We call it a ‘YN2.’ People [outside the Coast Guard] have no idea what that means, but I tell them it’s similar to a human resources type of role. My job actually consists of working one-on-one with military service members to fulfill their administrative needs. I basically manage their career on paper. I process people out of the Coast Guard, I hire people in, and anytime they need help or have questions about payment or something personal, I assist them. I also stand duty on our base, which means I’m qualified to carry a weapon, and, when standing 24-hour watch, am the first responder to any emergency that may happen on base.”

How She Got Into The Field: “I joined [the Coast Guard] when I was 20, two years after graduating high school. I really wanted to go to college and have that experience, but I went to community college and hated it. … My brother got a letter in the mail from the Coast Guard, and I remember thinking that it was cool: They pay for your college education, you can travel the world -- to me, that was interesting! I talked to recruiters and my parents about it, and thought, ‘Hey, I want to represent my country.’ I liked having an opportunity to represent my family, also."

Why She Loves It: “[The Coast Guard] has given me great opportunities, and the chance to meet amazing people. I met my husband through the Coast Guard as well! It’s a rewarding job with advancement opportunities, and high recognition. The most rewarding part of my job is helping people understand how things work and answering important questions about payment, since many people in the military financially support their families. I also like making my family proud.”

Her No. 1 Piece Of Advice: “If you’re thinking of exploring a unique career path, I would definitely say go for it. The military as a whole is going to teach you a lot about yourself, and will help you create bonds with people who are from a completely different background than yourself. Also, just because you are in the military doesn’t mean you’ll have a traditional ‘military life.’ One thing I do that’s totally separate from my military life is play roller derby on a local team, where I can escape everything and just have fun."

Janice Romanelli, Field Paramedic

What People Think She Does vs. What She Actually Does: “People still associate emergency medical services with what they see on TV, or what they experienced years ago — people being thrown into an ambulance as quickly as possible. We’re educating a new generation of paramedics; our job is designed to be more mobile. Now, we can treat someone at the house with a life-saving intervention immediately, rather than speeding to a hospital.”

“I’m a field paramedic, but have other specialties, too ... My job is not just about patient care, but customer service, as well. We’re not just training our new providers to be great medical providers, but we’re also educating the public to have an interest in their own medical issues. We work with hospitals and healthcare providers to do this, in addition to documentation and other routine duties throughout the day.”

How She Got Into The Field: “I didn’t have much interest in medicine until I got to high school. In college, I got a job working at the local hospital, which opened me up to more allied health careers. One day, I was on my way home from work and came across a serious accident. Unfortunately, the individual passed away. That experience pushed me to pursue going to an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) class to learn basic lifesaving skills. Once I became an EMT, I realized I really liked it and wanted more — so went on to paramedic school.”

Why She Loves It: “The best part of my job is the relationships that have come out of it — with partners, nurses, and patients. I try to train my students to not just administer to medical issues, but find out where [the patient] is emotionally and medically, and see if they can help with that.”

Her No. 1 Piece Of Advice: “One of the things we run into with female EMTs and paramedics is other people asking them [questions like], ‘Are you sure you can handle the blood?’ and ‘Are you strong enough?’ I advise everyone to take the risk and try it. There are always internships and people out there willing to help you. Don’t let people say, ‘Well do you think you’re strong enough?’ Find out for yourself.”

Kristen Curtze, Senior Web Developer

What People Think She Does vs. What She Actually Does: “A common misconception is that I’m often categorized as a web designer by individuals outside the industry. Web designers are great, but that’s not what I do. I’m not a designer. In reality, I’m part of a team of engineers and developers working together on a system — specifically, a smart print management system. I code every day to make apps and software work.”

How She Got Into The Field: “When I was in my sophomore year of high school, I had a ton of passions in different areas. I was struggling to think about career options. I had a math teacher — and I’ve always loved math — who pushed us to take more classes. She told me I should try programming. I took a token programming class for Visual Basic. It was very vanilla — I was just making buttons on mobile-type things. But I sat there and I was like, ‘Oh, this is my thing.’"

Why She Loves It: “It’s the perfect mashup of patterned-logic meets creativity... I also work with Girls Develop It’s Rochester chapter. It’s empowering to see that I can help other people make a career change or jump. I like shaking up the bad stereotype that women can’t do this stuff.”

Her No. 1 Piece Of Advice: "I think one of the things that allowed me to continue my career was I didn’t consider the world around me in terms of who was doing [web development] — like, ‘Are they male? Are they women? Are they black? Are they white?’ It was more, ‘I’m new, and I want to do it.’ So if someone has an interest, if they have something they want to do, they should just do it — regardless of what the world looks like around you.”

Maggie Huys, Professional Chef

What People Think She Does vs. What She Actually Does: “A lot of strangers in the industry think I’m a waitress. I’m [actually] an executive sous chef. I’m responsible for everything from running the specials to ordering awesome produce to working with farmers. I run the kitchen — I’m in charge of making sure that things are thought about. There’s a lot of moving parts. My least favorite part is dealing with paperwork.”

How She Got Into The Field: “I’ve always loved to cook, and my strongest memories have been tied to food when I was young. When I was very young, my dad was friends with a chef and took me back into the kitchen! I went to college thinking I was going to get an art degree and go into fashion. Halfway through my freshman year, I was skipping classes to make bagels from scratch in my dorm room and binge-watching Anthony Bourdain all day. I thought fashion seemed like a more obvious career choice, and I could just have food for me. But later I realized food can be my career. Food is art, anyway.”

Why She Loves It: “The kitchen is really hot and it’s fast-paced and it’s rowdy, but I still want to come in and feed people every day. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m going to put on that plate, and how it’s going to taste for my customers. Nourishing others, on the most basic level, is really cool.”

Her No. 1 Piece Of Advice: “In high school I wanted to take all of the AP classes. I was still thinking about traditional career options at that point — maybe I could get a business degree, or maybe I’d go into science. But I just decided at some point that it’s much better to be happy.”

Lauren Mudd, Wind Engineer

What People Think She Does vs. What She Actually Does: “There’s definitely [confusion] a lot of times. I just moved to North Carolina a couple of years ago for work and would get the question, ‘What do you do?’ What I was doing at the time was modeling hurricanes, so that’s what I would say. The local hockey team here is the Hurricanes … so people thought I was modeling for the hockey team.

“Currently, I’m a wind engineer. I monitor atmospheric winds like hurricanes and tornadoes to let engineers know what they need to design, so structures standing now will still be standing 100 years from now.”

How She Got Into The Field: “I’ve always liked math and science and was planning to go to medical school but decided to do engineering as an undergrad, as a backup. I worked a while doing roadway design and wastewater analysis and absolutely hated it, but I went back to graduate school and got lucky working in a field I really enjoy."

Why She Loves It: "[My work] is all research-based, so there’s no prescription for what we do. Every day you have to figure out how to tackle the problem that you’re faced with. While it can sometimes be stressful and time-consuming, it’s always rewarding. I’m never bored.”

Her No. 1 Piece Of Advice: “In undergrad, there were four girls in my class of 60 people. You can’t let things like that dissuade you from reaching your goals. Stay motivated.”

Darcy Cooper, Firefighter

What People Think She Does vs. What She Actually Does: “People think [firefighters] fight fires everyday, which isn’t true. We are also first responders — EMTs and paramedics. Most of our runs are EMT calls. We respond to vehicle accidents, we have the Jaws of Life, we respond to river rescues, and even hazmat spills. We even have a tech rescue for window washers — we have all different kinds of teams.”

How She Got Into The Field: “Fresh out of high school, I was a rower, but I turned down some full-ride scholarships to go to college. I just felt like it wasn’t for me. I brought up public safety to my parents, and they were a little shocked, but after I mentioned it, there was a local fire academy opening in the paper. I went down the next day and signed myself up. I felt like I wanted to do this. I didn’t want a desk job — I wanted to be active.”

Why She Loves It: “I love helping people in their time of need. Some of the calls we get are from people having their worst days. To be able to help them through that, and make them as comfortable as possible, reminds me how lucky I am to be able to come home and see my boys.” (Cooper has two sons with her husband, who is also a firefighter.)

Her No. 1 Piece Of Advice: “It’s hard to think that college is not the only way or option. If there’s something you want to do in public or safety services, ask about a ride-along or look into it more. It never hurts to try something out. A little risk can be so rewarding.”

This post is sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Images: Edu Lauton / Unsplash; Kimberly Vargas; Janice Romanelli; Kristen Curtze; Kenan Hill (for Maggie Huys); Darcy Cooper.