Christine Bierman

(WOMENSENEWS)–More and more women across the nation are starting businesses in fields that have been traditionally dominated by men, including construction, electrical work, engineering, manufacturing and agribusiness.

It may not always be easy, but it certainly is more doable than even just a few years ago, says Sharon Hadary, executive director of the Center for Women’s Business Research in Washington, D.C. About 20 percent of the nation’s 6.2 million women-owned businesses are in nontraditional fields, she adds. In fact, from 1997 to 2000, women-owned engineering businesses rose by 30 percent, manufacturing went up by 26 percent and construction by almost 19 percent, according to a study conducted by the center.

There are several reasons for this precipitous increase, Hadary points out. Women have more access to capital from such banks as Wells Fargo Fleet and others that are targeting loans to women business owners. In addition, women’s business development centers and colleges are offering more courses and training in technical fields. And, women have been very proactive in creating their own opportunities in nontraditional fields.

“These women are very confident in their abilities and know they can make it in these nontraditional industries,” Hadary says. “They are working harder than ever and it shows in the success they have had.”

Increased Confidence, Opportunities

Chemist and medical consultant Cynthia Judd, 41 went into a business where she had knowledge, familiarity and comfort. The Edmond, Okla., resident launched her company, CJ Products International, Inc., in May 2001. From her background as a chemist, Judd realized that there were no mild, non-greasy lotions in the market to protect her skin from hazardous materials in the laboratory. She took the initiative, did her research and spent her spare time inventing Skin Cover, a patented body lotion that Judd has marketed to the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force. Soldiers, pilots, mechanics and others who come into contact with hazardous materials have used Skin Cover.

“Knowing that I can prevent someone from being scarred for life was the constant motivator for me to start my business,” Judd says. “It is so rewarding and fulfilling and that has always been my inspiration. This allowed me to launch my business with more confidence.”

Some new businesses in these fields can initially be launched at home with just a few thousand dollars, says Rudy Lewis, president of the National Association of Home Based Businesses in Owings Mills, Md.

“There are simply more options for women who want to try something untraditional and even do this out of their homes as they first get established in business. The days of the old boy network have changed for women entrepreneurs,” Lewis says.

Women’s Hard Work Gains Success

Christine J. Bierman, 51, a former door-to-door encyclopedia sales representative, is now chief executive officer of Colt Safety, Fire and Rescue, a distributor of safety gear such as helmets and hazardous materials protective suits. She tasted the unkind side of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, including being made fun of when she went on a sales call. Breaking down in tears was not uncommon for Bierman when she first became an entrepreneur. But, she was not deterred by early frustration. She also knew the importance early on of having a mentor–her husband, David.

“I remember hearing sneers while hobbling through a shipyard wearing a hard hat, high heels and pearls. But, I just kept coming back and was determined to prove that I could run this kind of company,” said Bierman, whose husband initially provided her with business leads from his own company selling hardware and factory supplies.

Today, Bierman has 17 employees and annual revenues of about $10 million. Colt is currently looking to distribute a new device to the military that could detect for the presence of anthrax, as well as safety gear for soldiers who are in combat.

“I did the job as well or better than the ‘guys’ did, and this kind of professionalism made me stand out in a male-dominated industry,” Bierman adds. “You always have to be your best and keep proving yourself.”

In addition to her husband, Bierman utilized some of her earliest customers–both male and female–as mentors. “I would have them walk me through their plants, take them to lunch and then ask if I could pick their brains. I learned a lot from these people and always appreciated their help when I started my business.”

Laura Koss-Feder is a freelance business and features writer who covers small business and career/workplace topics. She has written for The New York Times, Business Week, Time, Money, Investor’s Business Daily, Newsday,, and Family Circle.

For more information:

Center for Women’s Business Research:

National Association of Home-Based Businesses: