BY AMANDA COLLINS BERNIER, SHAWNA SHENETTE PHOTOGRAPHY
From Women’s Marches to the #MeToo movement, many have proclaimed 2018 the Year of Women. Indeed, it is an interesting time in history for females.
In the workplace, traditional gender lines are blurring in occupations typically dominated by one sex or another. According to a CareerBuilder survey, more and more women are moving into occupations that were previously dominated by men. From 2009 to 2017, for example, the number of female paramedics, coaches and chemists grew by at least 40 percent.
Still, many professions remain heavily dominated by one sex. What’s it like to be woman working in a “man’s world?” Meet five Massachusetts moms who are breaking stereotypes and statistics.
President, TommyCar Auto Group
Though women buy more than 50 percent of autos sold in the U.S., the number of women who sell them is far less. Women who own dealerships, like Northampton’s Carla Cosenzi, are even scarcer.
Cosezni, along with her brother, owns Country Nissan in Hadley, Country Hyundai and Northampton Volkswagon, both in Northampton. The face of the businesses started by her father — gracing their television ads for years — Cosenzi has expertly navigated the rapidly changing the auto sales industry. But working with cars was not actually the road she planned on taking.
“I never really saw myself as getting involved in the family business. I wanted to make my own path,” she said. After graduating from Northeastern University she went on to earn a Masters in Clinical Psychology from Columbia, and saw herself working in the research field. But when her dad convinced her to work for him while she sorted out her career plans, the then 24-year-old found herself surprised. “I fell in love with the business. I loved selling. I loved that it was so unexpected to have this young female on the sales floor. It made the experience of buying a car different than they expected, and for me, it just kind of clicked,” she said.
Cut to 15 years later, and Cosenzi is President of TommyCar Auto Group, running three dealerships and overseeing 105 employees. She’s not only working in a business heavily dominated by men, she’s leading it.
“I really struggled with that for years and years – I think I had to work harder,” she said of working in a world dominated by men. “When my brother came in the business, he walked in and was just accepted day one, even though he was younger and very new. It took me a long time to make my place and make a name for myself. It was boots on the ground. I had to come into my own confidence, but once I built that up, everything changed.”
Cosezni, who is mom to 4-year-old daughter Talia and 2-year-old son Niko, said having children has impacted the way she runs her business, giving her a newfound “balance.” Motherhood has provided her with a different appreciation for her employees who have kids, and has inspired her to find new ways to give back. The charitable arm of her business, Carla Cares, supports non-profit organizations and causes across the region, provides scholarships and has a presence at community events. Their annual golf tournament, in memory of Cosenzi’s father, Tom, has raised more than $830,000 for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Cosenzi admits it can be a challenge to strike the right work-life balance, but she hopes to be setting an example for her children – especially her daughter.
“I want her to see that I can enjoy my career and still be a good mom,” she said. “I would say that for all moms: it’s possible to do both. Lose the guilt, and find a middle ground. When you’re at work give it 100 percent and when you’re at home give it 100 percent, and try not to cross the two.”
Worcester County Register of Probate
At 26 years old, Stephanie Fattman, then an event planner and a third year law student, became the youngest person – and the first woman – ever elected Register of Probate in Worcester County.
A political newcomer, she took on a two-term Democratic incumbent to win the seat – the top position in the Probate and Family Court Department, which oversees the filing of documents in relation to matters such as divorce, child custody, name changes, wills and estates. Though relatively under the radar, it’s a big job, to be sure. The Worcester County Probate Court serves more than 800,000 people in 60 cities and towns, and has the highest percentage of domestic-related filings in the state.
“I had enjoyed event planning, but I was halfway through law school and realizing that a career as a traditionally lawyer wasn’t for me,” Fattman said. “My then-fiance [now husband, State Sen. Ryan Fattman] was involved in politics and that opened my eyes to see that there was more I could be doing for my community. I thought, ‘I could do this.’”
Fattman said she’d heard of people having some issues with the probate court system, which she felt boiled down to mismanagement. She campaigned on bringing fresh perspective and better customer service and management to the office. Elected in 2014, she came into an office with a staff of 30 people, with many ideas for change.
“As one of the youngest leaders in the court system, I think there was more of a generational gap than a gender gap,” she said. “I’ve been big on implementing new technology to make the office easier to navigate, before people even come in to court. It can be overwhelming and many times people are already dealing with a difficult time in life. My goal was to make it all relatable and easy to understand.”
That became even more important to her after having her first child. Being a mother to 2-year-old Hadley (and ready to pop with baby number two at the time this issue went to press!), has made Fattman more in tune with both the joys and harrows of families in need of the court’s services.
“A lot of the families are struggling through things like divorce, custody and support. Being a mother has helped me relate, having the perspective of my own family,” she said. “Then there’s the adoptions, which are probably the happiest thing that happens in my office. Being a mom, I know now the love and joy these families are establishing.”
Farmer/Manager, Upswing Farm
Brittany Overshiner isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty.
In fact, when it comes to Upswing Farm, a small, diversified vegetable farm that she runs with her husband, Kevin, the dirty work is her favorite part.
A lot more than planting and harvesting goes into a business like Upswing Farm. There’s office work, marketing, crop planning. But Overshiner has always loved being outside and working with her hands. Small-scale sustainable farming allows her the opportunity to that, while combining her passion for the environmental issues and individual well-being.
Her “a-ha moment,” as she calls it – when she made the connection that how we grow food directly impacts our bodies and the environment – happened while she was a college student. After graduating from Northeastern University, she took part in three years of farming apprenticeships, learning the ropes on farms in upstate New York, British Columbia, and the Boston Metro-West area. She completed the Beginning Women Farmers Holistic Management Training Course, funded by the USDA.
As a founding farmer of the Medway Community Farm, she took a blank slate and built a business from the ground up. In just 5 years she led the creation of a three-season CSA, a farm stand, a school-to-farm program, a diversified education program, as well as volunteer program and hunger relief programs.
Overshiner called that a lesson in “sweat equity and ingenuity,” which readied her to manage her own farm. She leased the land for Upswing Farm, on the border of Ashland and Holliston, in 2016 to not only grow fresh, nutritious food, but also to preserve the historic farmland. Her ultimate goal is saving the space from development.
It took a leap of faith.
“When you’re starting from the beginning you have to build the business, you have to build the reputation and you have to build the market. You need to put in all that effort and hopefully get a return in not too many years. You’re giving 110 percent and crossing your fingers you can make it work,” she said.
Add a 1-year-old to the mix, and things can be even more challenging. But Overshiner hopes all the time her son, Harvey, spends on the farm with his parents will instill in him the confidence to pursue his own passions.
“Most of all I want him to believe if there is something he feels passionately about, he can make it happen. It might take sacrifices, but I want him to feel empowered to do that,” she said. “It’s so important to feel excited about what you’re doing on a daily basis. There are so many different ways to create positive change. I hope he will be inspired by that.”
Upswing Farm, at 28 South St., Ashland, offers several CSA programs, tasting tours, workshops and educational classes. Produce and flowers are sold on-site and at the Ashland Farmers Market. Vegetable, herb and flower seedlings for home gardeners are for sale every weekend from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. throughout the month of May.
U.S. Army Veteran/Chef
Jen Ramirez isn’t happy sitting behind a desk.
These days, that trait keeps her content in the busy bustle of a commercial kitchen. About a decade ago, it was what inspired her to be one of the first women in the Army to be attached to a combat arms unit.
Ramirez joined the Army at the age of 19, becoming an intelligence analyst. About six months into her tour in Iraq in 2005-2006, she volunteered to work with a combat unit.
“Being in intelligence, you don’t get to see a lot action. You’re basically sitting behind a computer tracking incidences, collecting info. I wanted to get more experience,” she said.
Ramirez said that although at the time women weren’t technically allowed in combat roles, there was a need for women to be attached to combat arms units, especially when it came to picking up female detainees in the Middle East. She was one of two women attached to the unit.
“It was interesting because at first these guys weren’t used to having women as part of their group. People reacted differently – a lot were really hesitant and resistant to it. Others were completely fine, and just said ‘welcome to the team,’”she said.
After returning from Iraq, Ramirez was promoted to Corporal and worked doing Top Secret security clearances at Ft. Stewart, Georgia. She left active duty in 2007.
Ramirez considered staying in government, but ultimately decided “sitting behind a computer all day” wasn’t for her. She had been cooking a lot, and began to realize how happy she felt in the kitchen. In culinary school, she fell in love with the career.
Ramirez said that cooking has also provided her with the flexibility she needs as a single mom to 9-year-old Tristan.
Ramirez works as a cook at Amherst College during the school year, and at Camp Ramah, a Jewish Summer Camp in Palmer, in the summer. There, she cooks for 1000 kids and staff members a day, specializing in catering to the population with food allergies and sensitivities. She reviews all dietary needs and creates special menus and recipes based on those restrictions.
“It’s definitely challenging but I enjoy the challenge. You really have to think outside the box,” she said. “You play around with things – substitute this ingredient for that ingredient. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t. You just roll with it and figure it out.”
“Sometimes I think it’s awesome. I’m so proud to say ‘I’m a woman of steel,’ — it’s kind of cool to be that person,” Jess Allen, a mom of two, said of her profession. “Other times I might be on the phone with a client, and I feel like I’m being mansplained.”
As a steel detailer, Allen prepares detailed plans, drawings and other documents for the manufacture and erection of steel to be used in the construction of buildings, bridges, industrial plans, and nonbuilding structures. Throughout her more than decade-long career, she said she’s worked directly with only one other woman.
Indeed, it was a man who got Allen involved in the industry – her dad. He was a welder who taught himself drafting after hurting his back, and then, taught his daughter. Allen, who was pregnant when she entered the world of steel, started out working under her father. She has been self employed and working out of her Westfield home for about 11 years.
Work as a steel detailer can vary dramatically from job to job. Some can be done in a matter of hours, while others drag out over a year. Most times, she has about five or six jobs going at a time.
“Figuring it all out is my favorite. When I get drawings, sometimes they aren’t really clear. I go back and forth between sets of drawings to figure it all out, then modeling, or building it in my program. Once that’s done I have to do the tedious part of drawing it all out,” she explained.
Working from home can have its challenges, said Allen. Laundry is waiting or dishes are in the sink, so she has to focus to separate the duties of home, and the duties of work.
But working from home also allows her the chance to teach her sons, Cody, age 12 and Connor, age 9, about the job. Cody already helps with editing drawings, and next summer she plans to officially hire him.
The blurred work-home lines mean that sometimes, the best parenting moments happen outside the house.
“I always tell people are my favorite conversations are the ones we have in the car. We have a nothing taboo policy. We talk about everything. We talk about uncomfortable things: puberty, sex, things that are happening in the world,” she said. “But being in the car, sometimes it just gives me a chance to catch my breath when those things come up. I’m telling you, it’s the best time to have those conversations.”