Her mother offered some advice when Michelle Heckmann decided she wanted to be a plumber.
Never go into a bank to deposit your paycheck when you're dirty and sweaty from crawling around under someone's house.
And never let your butt crack show.
As might be obvious, Heckmann's family wasn't wholly supportive when she first trained to be a plumber back in the late '90s. But things change.
"As the years have gone by, they have learned to appreciate my profession," she says. "[My] sister calls and says, 'Hey, can you bring your tool bag?'"
And though the 47-year-old has been getting down and dirty in crawlspaces, under sinks, around water heaters and even crawling into a 15,000-gallon backed-up septic tank, she still runs into clients who, when she shows up, say they want a male plumber instead.
A typical reaction from clients when seeing her for the first time on a job is, "You're going to do that by yourself? Don't you need some help?" Heckmann says.
Heckmann is not alone when it comes to meeting resistance in a male-dominated industry. While the numbers of women in such industries as plumbing, car repair, welding, technology and trucking have been rising in recent years, they're still a minority and, in some cases, still ostracized not only by customers but by males in their chosen profession.
Allan Gentry, chairman of the Technology Department at Cleveland State Community College, says women enrolling in nontraditional programs at the school has been steady in recent years. Such programs include mechanical and electrical maintenance, computers, industrial automation, drafting and construction.
"I don't know that we have seen an increase, but it has been consistent," Gentry says. "We have had women in nontraditional programs, and in my observations, those in the technical areas have done very well. I know of a few that have gone on to four-year schools to continue their education."
The numbers are fairly consistent at Chattanooga State Community College, as well.
Eva Lewis, associate vice president at the school, says women make up about a quarter of the enrollment in traditionally male programs in the school's Technology Division.
"That number has been steady for at least three years," Lewis says. "In programs such as auto repair and welding, we had some variation but no clear trend. We graduated between 10 percent and 4 percent women in traditionally male professions per year, but the numbers would fall one year and jump the next."
Even after more than a decade on the job, Heckmann says she still gets pushback from some male plumbers who don't appreciate her horning in on their turf. But she says she has never let being female stop her from doing jobs typically performed by men. In fact, it was while she was remodeling a bathroom in her own home that she decided she wanted to be a plumber.
The lone female plumber who works in the "field" at Hers and His Plumbing in Chattanooga, Heckmann works between 50 and 60 hours a week, she says, noting that she works on commission and is paid the same as men at her company.
Like Heckmann, Judy Broadrick, a mechanic and owner of Ringgold Radiator Repair in Ringgold, Ga., also faced naysayers when she began 35 years ago. Her family was not onboard, either.
"My father, who was trying to be protective rather than discouraging, told me I'd get hurt and men wouldn't want to deal with a woman," she says. "My mother told me I was hard-headed and that I'd do what I wanted to do no matter what anyone else says. She was right."
Broadrick says she did get support, though, from a brother-in-law, who owned a radiator repair shop in East Ridge.
"'Don't listen to the family,' he told me. 'You can do anything you set your mind to.' He also told me I could come to him for help anytime."
Broadrick says women need to hear stories about women who've stepped into nontraditional roles in the work force.
"Women don't need to be limited by stereotypes," she says.
The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence reports the number of certified female auto technicians has more than tripled in the last 10 years, yet women still represent less than 1 percent of the total ASE-certified technicians, according to the website for the Georgia Small Business Development Center at the University of Georgia.
Industry experts suggest that women often do not consider auto service careers because of the industry's gritty, male-dominate image, the website reports.
Broadrick, 61 and a great-grandmother, says she was the mother of five young children with a marriage going "by the wayside" when she decided to get into the radiator repair business. She became a mechanic to put food on the table for her five children. Her then-husband was a mechanic who worked on radiators in his shop next to their home and she learned a lot about radiator repair by watching him work.
Though she recently handed over the majority of the mechanic duties to a younger -- male -- employee, she does all the torch welding work, she says.
Getting support for her business from the community was vital, she says. "So I passed out business cards while wearing a dress and high heels. People assumed I was drumming up business for my husband, so it was comical when they'd come in to the shop and I'd be the only one there, and I'd be filthy dirty -- you get dirty working on radiators. But 35 years later, I'm still here."
Every morning before work, Connie McAdams gets dressed, applies makeup, pulls up her shoulder-length hair into a ponytail and walks about five feet to where her work day begins -- behind the wheel of a 2013 Freightliner Cascadia truck.
"I'm not a girly girl. I don't like malls. I don't like shopping. I'd rather be outdoors doing something."
For the last 21/2 years, McAdams, 57, has been driving a truck from coast to coast. Along with her husband, Bill, who rides in the cab with her, she delivers dry goods to California and brings back fresh vegetables and fruit to Alabama, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina.
The couple, employed by Covenant Transport in Chattanooga, live and work 49 weeks a year in the 10-by-10-foot cab of the truck. They take turns driving 10-hour shifts.
Before climbing into the trucking industry, she spent years in jobs that many would consider more suited for a woman.
"When I graduated from high school, I went into waitressing and became manager of a restaurant," she says. "That's how I put myself through cosmetology school. I worked at that for 17 years, but it wasn't where my heart was. I didn't want to be inside anymore."
Driving a big rig fit the bill, she says, and her family supported her career change.
Still, the first couple months on the road put a strain on her marriage because it's rough being with your with your spouse in small quarters 24/7, McAdams says.
"We pulled into a rest area one day, and we had to talk it out," she says. "If we didn't get it straightened out, the job could have come between us. We were best friends before we got married, and we did everything together. I wasn't going to let a job come between us. I would have given it up and walked away if we couldn't work it out."
In 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau noted that 5 percent of truck drivers in the country were women. Ellen Voie, president/CEO of Women in Trucking, says that figure is now closer to 6 percent.
Out of 361 drivers at Covenant, 15.6 percent are women, says Phyllis Williams, director of communications for the company. "We have women who are solo drivers, team drivers, trainers, executive council members, state road team captains and state driving championship competitors."
The pay and opportunities at Covenant are the same for women as for men, Williams says.
"I have no regrets," McAdams says. "I love this."
Contact staff writer Karen Nazor Hill at email@example.com or 423-757-6396. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/karennazorhill. Subscribe to her posts on Facebook at www.facebook.com/karennazorhill.
Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...
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