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Women’s work: 12 stories of female success and struggle in male-dominated fields | Perspective

In award-winning photographer Chris Crisman's new book, he pairs striking photography with personal essays from women who have carved out unique places for themselves in a workforce often dominated by men.

(clockwise from top left) Tiquicia Spence, Lisa Calvo, Heather Marold Thomason, and Mira Nakashima are four of the women featured in Chris Crisman's photography and essay book "Women's Work," which explores women who have careers in male-dominated fields.
(clockwise from top left) Tiquicia Spence, Lisa Calvo, Heather Marold Thomason, and Mira Nakashima are four of the women featured in Chris Crisman's photography and essay book "Women's Work," which explores women who have careers in male-dominated fields.Read moreChris Crisman (custom credit)

Today, young girls are told they can be anything they want when they grow up. Yet the unique challenges that women face in the workplace, whether in the boardroom or the barnyard, have never been more publicly discussed and scrutinized.

In Women’s Work, award-winning photographer Chris Crisman, who is based near Philadelphia, pairs his striking photography with personal essays from women who have carved out unique places for themselves in a workforce often dominated by men, and often by men who have told them no.

In this excerpt for The Inquirer, women from Pennsylvania and New Jersey share their stories.

Heather Marold Thomason

My entry into butchery started with farming. I was inspired to learn the trade to become a resource for small, sustainable livestock farmers. When I was unable to find an opportunity to apprentice with a butcher, I sought out a farmer to take me on instead. I spent a full season, from April through November, apprenticing at a pasture-based livestock farm, North Mountain Pastures, in central Pennsylvania, where we raised animals from birth to slaughter, harvested chickens weekly, made sausages and other products for farmers’ markets, and worked with a local butcher to process all of the other meat we raised to sell to customers. Toward the end of the season, I finally connected with a butcher, the owner of the Local Butcher Shop in Berkeley, Calif., who agreed to take me on as an apprentice. I showed up every day for five months to train in all aspects of meat-cutting; by the end, I could break whole hanging beef off of a rail. That summer they hired me on as a butcher and I stayed there, continuing to practice the craft of whole animal butchery. I eventually went back East to help open a new butcher shop within a restaurant called Kensington Quarters in Philadelphia. I became the head butcher and shop manager there. In my work I started to build a network of farmers and processors who would eventually become the foundation of my own business.

In 2016, I started Primal Supply Meats, a butchery and local sourcing company committed to providing sustainable, pasture-raised meat to Philadelphia. It has been an actualization of what brought me to butchery in the first place. I am working directly with local farmers to build up a supply chain and market for sustainable meat in Philadelphia. Chasing my goals as a butcher brought out the entrepreneur in me. Now I am dedicated to growing my business, training more butchers, educating the chefs and home cooks we supply, and creating lasting connections in my local food community. When I get to spend a quiet morning cutting meat to set a beautiful case in my shop and then open the door for the day’s business, it still feels like a dream come true.

I often had to work harder than the men around me just to prove myself.

I spent my 20s working as a graphic designer in New York City. As I entered my 30s, I grew tired of perpetual deadlines and staring at a computer screen all day. I had grown close with a local farmer raising pigs and became interested in the challenges he faced growing his business because of the limited resources for slaughter and butchery available to small farmers. At the same time I saw a whole-animal butcher shop open in my Brooklyn neighborhood that immediately filled a need for the community.

During my time training as a butcher, I was never really bothered or deterred by the lack of women around me. Some of the men I worked with — farmers, butchers, slaughterhouse owners — would not always take me seriously at first. I often had to work harder than the men around me just to prove myself. But I always did, and that made me better at what I do. Once I worked my way up to being a head butcher and manager, I started to hire and train other women, so that now there are more and more female butchers in our world.

Heather Marold Thomason is a butcher and the founder of Primal Supply Meats in Philadelphia.

Angela Duckworth

Before I became a psychologist, I spent several years as a classroom teacher, trying to help kids that way. I think teaching offered stories and relationships that inspired my current research. Back then, I was frustrated by my own ineffectiveness in motivating kids to do what I thought they were capable of. In that sense, teaching shaped everything I do as a psychologist today. If I hadn’t gone into teaching, would I still have become a psychologist? I don’t know.

I do think there are real gender differences in how hard it is to get through, all the way through, the system as a woman. I know that women are more likely to feel as if they should be doing a lot of work that’s not central to their own personal research agendas. For example, women are much more likely to sit on committees when asked; men don’t feel as bad about saying no.

Here’s a hack — or you can call it a strategy — that works for me, my husband, my closest collaborators, but not everyone realizes its power: You should copy other people. I sometimes jokingly call this “personality plagiarism.”

It works like this: When you’re trying to do something and you can’t do it because you’ve never done it before, or maybe you have tried to do it before but you just haven’t done it very well, you should take the best possible version you can find and copy it.

In my first year of graduate school, I had to write papers, just as many of my students do now. I’d never done it before. But I took a few great papers and laid them out. I took a pen and tried to understand them. They started here with a short sentence, or they used active verbs, things like that. I copied the form. Start looking for these patterns. Ask yourself, Which friend has the most reliable workout schedule? Ask them how they do it. Just copy what they do. I hear from a lot of people who feel as if that’s cheating. They don’t want to copy. No, it’s not cheating. In the school of life, it’s OK to plagiarize.

Angela Duckworth is a psychologist and the best-selling author of “Grit: The Power and Passion and Perseverance.” She is based in Philadelphia.

Beth Beverly

Traditionally, in the sense of hunting lodge trophy mounts, taxidermy has been thought of as somewhat of a boys’ club. But a quick search on social media for alternative or “rogue” taxidermy will reveal a field dominated by women. Almost all my students are women, and I don’t see that slowing down anytime soon. I think a human who can handle bleeding out of her vagina for days at a time, plus growing a whole other person inside her body only to expel it at some point, is well suited for the less-than-glamorous parts of processing dead animals.

Don’t pay too much attention to rules.

I’m a new mother, so I’m still trying (and failing) to navigate time management with parenthood, so hopefully in the near future I’ll strike a hint of balance when it comes to being the frontline parent and running a business at the same time.

Many people have written that seeing my work on a larger scale has influenced their daughter or niece or granddaughters to try taxidermy. My advice to them is: Don’t pay too much attention to rules. They were most likely made by someone who bears no resemblance to you and never had your best interest in mind.

Beth Beverly is a taxidermist in Philadelphia.

Dorothy Roberts

My becoming a teacher really goes back to my childhood. My father was an anthropology professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago; my mother was working on her Ph.D. in anthropology and had planned to also be an anthropology professor when I was born. She gave up her pursuit of a Ph.D. and a career as a professor to become a mother. She always told me, “You’re my Ph.D.” In other words, “You are going to follow the path I gave up for you.”

Because of my parents, I was interested in anthropology from a very, very young age. I went to Yale College and majored in anthropology and was en route to doing that. But then in my senior year, I just felt that I wanted to do something more in terms of social justice advocacy; I was always interested in politics and social justice, even as a young girl. I grew up in Hyde Park in Chicago in the 1960s, where there was a lot of civil rights and antiwar activity in the neighborhood. Many of my teachers were vocal about their activism, and I used to go to civil rights meetings.

I ended up going to law school and practicing law for a while, but soon realized what I really wanted to do was advocacy through research and writing. While I was working at a law firm, I had three children, one after another. It made sense to transition into academia when they were all out of diapers. Having my children and reading about reproductive injustices in the newspaper made me interested in reproductive rights issues — not just the issues of abortion but the regulation of pregnant women’s conduct during pregnancy.

When I started writing about this topic in the late 1980s, reproductive rights was synonymous with abortion rights. Today, with more prosecutions continuing and states beginning to pass fetal protection laws, it’s very clear that this is part of a move to control pregnant women.

Dorothy Roberts is a scholar on race, gender, and law in Philadelphia.

Judith von Seldeneck

My father’s aspirations for me were not, shall we say, progressive. He thought I would make a fine secretary, get married, have a family. In fact, I did make a fine secretary, get married, and have a family. But that proved to be just the beginning of my aspirations.

I ended up working as the personal secretary to Sen. Walter Mondale in the 1960s. Mondale was, no question, my biggest influence in becoming an executive recruiter years later. He taught me how to manage time, which is one of the most undervalued skills around.

I want to be where the action is.

When I moved to Philadelphia in the early 1970s, I needed a purpose. I found it when I met a few other women like me and we together started a job-sharing business for women. At this time, women were beginning to show up in the workforce in more substantial numbers, but in my neighborhood, I was still the only mom carrying a briefcase and taking the commuter train into town with the boys.

If I hadn’t done this, I think I would have liked to run for office. Somewhere in Congress perhaps, but back in my day this was unheard of. I went to law school briefly in the late 1960s and was one of only two women in the whole class, which tells you something.

I will never retire. I am always looking for what’s next: the next search, the next board, the next initiative to support. A lot of my peers are retired or near being retired, and they want to talk about their gardens or their golf games. I’m happy for them, that they are loving life as they take their victory laps. But I want to be where the action is.

Judith von Seldeneck is a C-suite executive searcher in Philadelphia.

Julie Engiles

People frequently ask why I’d want such a disgusting job dealing with so much death. Pathology is definitely a “dirty job” that is not very glamorous and often very humbling. But to me, being the person whose job it is to definitively identify diseases suspected in the antemortem (“before-death”) diagnosis, further investigate and understand disease, or even discover new diseases is more fulfilling than being the person who directly treats disease in the living animal. This job provides the opportunity to understand how organisms operate on the smallest level of the cell to the larger level of the global environment. You can see histories within the cells and tissues of these animals that maybe nobody knew prior to your identification. I find experiencing these different perspectives very Zen; you can step back from your microscope and see the forest for the trees, but also allow yourself to really focus on a single pine. There is a beauty, a mystery, and an intrigue in all aspects of it.

The story of how I became a veterinary pathologist is a bit long and convoluted, but my winding path helped me realize that it’s OK if you are not the type of person who fits into the mold or is a long-term goal-setter. It’s OK to figure out the path that best suits your soul.

Julie Engiles is a veterinary pathologist and professor in Landenberg, Pa.

Lisa Calvo

While we were living in Virginia, my husband and I began dabbling in oyster farming. The first chapter of Sweet Amalia Oyster Farm, which was named after our daughter, was written in the shallow waters of Mobjack Bay, Va. Yet as our family grew, with the birth of our son, the security of a 9-to-5 career path took priority. We eventually returned to New Jersey, where he worked in aquaculture policy and I rejoined the team at Rutgers, continuing my career in shellfish research and community-based oyster restoration. It wasn’t until 12 years later that Sweet Amalia Oyster Farm returned to life, this time on the shores of the Delaware Bay that had captivated me so many years before. Though the farm was initially more of a focus for my husband, we worked side-by-side during those early years. So, when he decided to pursue an opportunity in his home country of Uruguay, I found myself at a crossroads. I decided to keep the oyster farm going and have never looked back.

At the time, I didn’t think too much about the fact that women were a rarity in oyster farming. While there is a long way to go in many professions to achieve true equality, I believe that women bring diverse perspectives and approaches to their work, paired with a willingness to dig in with dedication, creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving skills.

I believe that women bring diverse perspectives and approaches to their work.

I see these strengths on my farm every day. Currently, women make up the majority of my crew — and while this wasn’t intentional, the impact is clear. Whether they were drawn to the field through an interest in sustainability, love for the outdoors, or a taste for oysters, their ability to solve problems, pay attention to details, and move intuitively between tasks defines their work. I’m lucky to raise oysters with a select group of women who inspire me, both my contemporaries and the rising generation. There is a special form of community that emerges alongside the water. Oyster farming is physically demanding, but rote tasks like sorting them for market creates space for us to come together. We share our experiences and talk about the things that matter in our lives. There’s a sense of camaraderie that bridges generations.

Lisa Calvo is an oyster farmer in Newfield, N.J.

Khalia Braswell

Honestly, I started coding through Myspace. I was very intrigued with changing the background color of my Myspace page. I used to have sticky notes with codes on my wall, just to remember how to do things. Being able to control what things looked like using code was fascinating to me. When I went to high school, I really learned to code. I had women teaching my technical courses in high school, and some of them were black women, too. This had a huge impact on me having the confidence to go into tech because I never knew anything different. I saw women of color in tech every day. I didn’t intend to create INTech, my coding camp for girls. I had received grant funding to host a camp in 2014, and the response from the scholars, parents, volunteers was so electrifying that I had to keep doing it. We never stopped, and we’ve continuously grown since then. Now we do a one-day camp, a five-day summer camp, and a high school after-school program. At INTech we make sure we have a lot of women in front of our scholars so that they’ll know there are other women — not just me — in tech.

Khalia Braswell is a technologist and the founder of INTech Camp for Girls in Philadelphia.

Mira Nakashima

When I was growing up, women were not allowed to do woodworking and not many studied architecture either, but I studied architecture as an undergrad at Harvard and earned a master’s at Waseda University in Tokyo nonetheless. I returned to work with my parents in 1970, helped my mother in the office, helped my father with design, and got to work in the shop when I was finished with my other work. After my father died, it was a struggle to convince the public that I was not just making reproductions of what my father had done — that I could actually design and make something different from him. It took several years of “flying solo” before people began to believe I could actually continue the work he had begun.

It took several years of “flying solo” before people began to believe I could actually continue the work.

Without woodworking, I honestly do not know what I’d be doing. I suppose I should start thinking about retiring, but it’s too much fun to stop now. I would like to develop a workable plan so that our work continues beyond my lifetime, but this has been my life for so long I am having a tough time letting it go and imagining what it would be like without me.

Mira Nakashima is a woodworker in New Hope, Pa.

Natalie Egenolf

The first thing I ever wanted to be was a singing cashier. Then an astronaut. But I had to start working at a young age, 14 — anything extra I wanted, I had to go and work for myself. I think I’ve always had a passion for performance art, and when I was 16, I did the morning announcements for our high school on Cardinal Dougherty television. I loved it.

As a woman in sports radio, I do feel as if I had to work harder than others to get to the places I wanted to go. I was often the only woman in the room, so I sometimes questioned myself a little. People have also questioned me despite the fact that my resumé was usually longer than the guy’s next to me. No one ever questions the dues my male peers paid. Sometimes people will say I only got the job because I’m a woman, because of how I look. What they don’t realize is that I have 10 years of work experience. Whereas some of my [male] peers who might have two years of experience in radio don’t get that same line of questioning, that doubt, from the public or internally.

The public come at men for their opinions; I get it from all angles. Even if they want to attack my opinion, they start with my appearance.

[When I get down about that, I think about] my mom. She was homeless as a child and on her own by the time she was 15. She was a single mom and faced a lot of stigmatization. She worked so hard to send me and my sister to Catholic school. She saved up for two years, working as a bartender, to take my sister and me to Disney World. I know it’s cheesy, but when we were at Disney we saw their signature slogan everywhere: “If you can dream it, you can do it.” I remember my mom looking at me and seeing that in her. It was a dream for her to just take us there. She dreamed of the simple things. Being able to do this for her is really what it’s been all about.

Natalie Egenolf is an on-air personality and sports update anchor in Philadelphia.

Tiquicia Spence

I grew up in Philadelphia and went to Penn State for college, which is where I first began the Army ROTC program.

Being a woman in the military is substantial. You’ve got to take in experience and make the very best of it — it’s not for everyone. Until recently, the combat arms positions, infantry, CAV scouts, and engineers have been male-oriented, but the military is transitioning and female soldiers are being given the opportunity to fill these jobs. This is the first time ever in history where we’ll have women serving alongside men as engineers and infantry soldiers. People can say that they don’t like it; they can say that women don’t make the cut, but it’s happening.

It’s all about how you train. I’ve seen both women and men who are great in a particular position but not so great in others. Male or female, you just have to be able to do the work, without expecting leniency — you do the job just as efficiently as any other person in the world. This is something I strive for and will continue to exercise. I’ll be comfortable in a full-time administrative position, but no matter what you pursue, you have to commit, and it’s a very, very big commitment. Imagine: There you are, a woman training with what used to be an all-male unit, or training for a job that used to be all-male. You’re going to come across scrutiny from your counterparts. You just have to be physically and mentally prepared to deal with that kind of reaction. It’s inevitable. It’s worth the risk.

The benefits in the military are wonderful. I know my son’s taken care of. I’ve got medical benefits for myself. If I go to retirement, I have benefits I can transfer over to my son to make sure he’ll have them for the rest of his life. I know that he is going to be well-cared for, that I won’t have to worry about that.

If you’re interested in the military, I say just keeping reaching for the top. Above all, you must be patient and never, never stop working.

Tiquicia Spence is an Army NCO/CBRN NCO in Tobyhana, Pa.

Nancy Poli

We began raising pigs about 10 years ago. My son had recently left college and was looking for a career. Being a young man with much ambition and limited resources, utilizing the family land seemed beneficial. Farming appealed to him as a way of getting back to basics as well as offering a unique lifestyle. I was not enthusiastic about this idea at first, as we had no farming experience, but my son’s vision was contagious and we dived into the endeavor wholeheartedly.

No one has ever personally spoken to me negatively about my living on a pig farm, but I must admit that at first I didn’t like the sound of it, but then I asked myself if I cared what people thought more than I loved and wanted to support my son; there was only one answer and it certainly wasn’t to live my life to please or gain approval of people uninvolved in our lives. If I am a likable, worthy person, it is so with or without my farm. I have suffered no ill effects from the people I know.

I have learned much since this venture began about farming, running a successful livestock business, and personal capabilities. Most important, I have relearned not to be afraid of the unknown; as a young woman, I found there was little that was daunting. At this point in my life I wondered if my son and I were up to the challenge and I feared failure. Following my son’s lead in transforming our property into a working farm has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Nancy Poli is a pig farmer in Saylorsburg, Pa.