Women prove they can excel at traditionally male occupations

Liberty Palmer at Station 1 Grand Junction Fire Department.

It’s almost easier if Julie Allison doesn’t tell people what she does for a living.

When they learn she’s a railroad conductor for Union Pacific, the questions start flying, fast and furious.

“When people find out, they think it’s the coolest thing,” she said.

Allison finds desk work boring. She enjoys working in the fresh air, and she figured it would be a way to get past catty office gossip.

“It’s a good-paying job, especially for Grand Junction. I didn’t go to school. I couldn’t make that wage somewhere else,” she said.

Allison, 46, was not fascinated by trains in her youth. But the mother of four was living in Salt Lake City and needed work when she learned of some openings at the railroad. She works graveyard shift in the rail yards in Grand Junction.

“When we go by the river and see wildlife and elk, I think, ‘This is my office,’ ” she said. “I love this. It’s a good job.”

Indeed, women such as Allison are making inroads, although slight, into traditionally male professions. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up 2.2 percent of locomotive engineers and operators.

In 2009, women accounted for more than half of all workers in the areas of financial activities, education, health services, leisure and hospitality, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overall, the number of women in the labor force through 2018 will grow slightly faster, at 9 percent, than the rate of men, at 7 percent.

While a recession has hit all jobs in all sectors, men are hit harder in a down time, as they still dominate jobs in construction and manufacturing, two of the hardest-hit job brackets. In 1950, one in 20 men of working age was not working. Now about one in five men of working age is unemployed.

Additionally, jobs deemed to be the most in demand through the next decade include work traditionally done by women, such as nursing, food preparation, retail, and elementary-school and post-secondary teachers.

Some professions struggle to attract the opposite sex more than others. School District 51, for example, has only a handful of male kindergarten teachers, though the ratio of male and female teachers tends to balance out in middle school and high school.

“It’s always tough matching the gender to match the population in elementary school,” District 51 spokesman Jeff Kirtland said. “There’s a huge discrepancy.”

Positions for teachers in elementary school don’t open up often, Kirtland said, and recruitment efforts, as in any job, require hiring the best person for the job.

“When you’re interviewing for elementary teachers, it’s going to get 80 percent female,” he said. “The challenge is: How do you find best candidate for the job?”

Grand Junction firefighter Liberty Palmer is one of five female workers at the station with either firefighter or emergency medical technician roles. Graduating the academy was physically demanding, “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” but the work is rewarding, she said.

“I played with Barbies growing up; I didn’t play with chain saws,” she said.

Prior to being a firefighter, Palmer worked in retail and in the emergency room at Community Hospital. She used to call the Fire Department “the good old boy’s club,” and she still thinks some firefighters question her ability to do the work, primarily because of her gender.

There are surprises, though. Training manuals at the station increasingly show photos of female firefighters, she said.

Palmer, 26, is on light duty until February, while pregnant.

Working for the Fire Department actually gives her a break from some of the stereotypical gender roles. Firefighters regularly share meals together in between calls, and the men know what they’re doing in the kitchen.

“It’s kind of nice. I think a lot of the guys cook better than I do,” she said.

For Allison, work as a train conductor includes always being on call. She must show for work within two hours of being summoned to serve a 12-hour shift, hauling coal to Delta or Paonia, a schedule that makes it impossible to schedule even a dentist appointment. Work includes some paperwork, connecting train cars in the yard and throwing switches for the train’s engineer while en route.

Allison is the only female railroad conductor she knows of. Physical requirements for the job are somewhat strenuous, having to complete a test of situps and some strength tests. Connecting the knuckles of train cars requires lifting 40 to 80 pounds, and while she can and has lifted that weight many times, there’s always someone around to help.

“There’s definitely self-inflicted goals,” she said. “I feel like I have to prove myself. There’s a few of the guys, usually the older ones, that think women don’t belong here. But my boss says, ‘I wish I had a ton of swithchmen like Julie.’ “

“I work hard,” she said.


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