Three Howard County women who excel in male-dominated fields

For Howard Magazine
Meet three local women who shine in traditionally male fields.

One runs the intensive care unit at Howard County General Hospital. Another designs wastewater and sewer systems. A third oversees fire and rescue crews for the county fire department.

While their jobs are dramatically different, the three have a few things in common.

They are all women. They all work in professions dominated by men, which means they occasionally have to put up with snubs, insults and an old-boy network that can leave them out. And, they all love what they do and have done it with great success — male-dominated profession or not.

The ICU Doctor: Jeanette Nazarian, 47

A few years back, Dr. Jeanette Nazarian was working in the Intensive Care Unit at Baltimore’s Mercy Hospital when she and a nurse sat down for an important “end-of-life” conversation with a patient’s family. When she was done talking, the family member turned to the nurse, a male, and asked, “Well, what does Dr. Martin think?”

Nazarian left Mercy a couple of years ago to work at Howard County General, where she is now director of the hospital’s intensive care and step-down units. Despite her elevated position and her experience, she still has to deal with people — from patients and their families to fellow physicians and nurses — who seem confused, to put it kindly, by the fact that she is female.

“I’m often mistaken for the unit secretary or the nutritionist,” she says.

Nazarian is matter-of-fact about this, and quick to point out that no one has ever told her she couldn’t be a doctor because she’s a woman. Still, she is an accomplished, hard-working professional — degrees from Yale and the University of Maryland School of Medicine, board-certified in internal medicine, pulmonary medicine and critical care medicine, responsible for two critical care units with a total of 35 beds — and the incidents rankle.

“What happens to me more than anything else is, physicians still don’t think that I’m the intensivist [critical care doctor],” she says. “It happens often enough that I’m still thinking, ‘Hey, this is 2015, are you serious?’ ”

With women making up nearly half of all medical school students, the days when women doctors were rare are fast disappearing. But certain specialties buck that trend, and one of them is Nazarian’s field of critical care medicine. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, 17 percent of the physicians in that field, or one in six, are women. That’s about half the proportion for all specialties.

Nazarian is not sure why more women don’t go into critical care, but she knows it’s the field for her — she loves the multi-tasking, the collaborative work on patients, the high-stress situations.

Nazarian recalls sitting through high school science labs and feeling like she “didn’t want to be anywhere else,” and her affinity for the work continues. “I love having complicated, mulitfactoral problems, love having a million things thrown at me at once,” she says. “It’s just fun.”

As a mother of two teenage girls, she also likes the fact that, unlike many specialties, critical care physicians are not on call when their shift is over.

As for the occasional confusion, slights and unwelcome remarks, she believes the lack of vulnerability she projects keeps them to a minimum.

The Engineer: Radhika Wijetunge, 42

As a civil engineer with degrees from Princeton and Yale, graduate work at MIT, and expertise in computer mapping and modeling, Radhika Wijetunge likes to think she has the technical skills to excel in her field.

As a woman, she also believes she has skills many of her male colleagues do not — people skills that can come in just as handy.

“I think women can bring a certain amount of sensitivity to meetings or projects,” explains Wijetunge, 42, who lives in Clarksville and works as a civil engineer for Brown and Caldwell, a national engineering firm. “You deal with a lot of people who’re going to be affected by your projects, and there have been a lot of times when I felt they were not as threatened by having a female speak to them … I don’t know whether we explain it better or empathize more, but we put people more at ease.”

To the popular mind, engineers as a group are perceived as socially awkward (think “Dilbert”) and overwhelmingly male.

Wijetunge’s observation suggests the first is sometimes true; statistics show the second definitely is. According to the National Science Foundation, just 15 percent of civil engineers are women; for engineers as a whole, the proportion is 13 percent.

Wijetunge, who says it is not unusual to find herself one of the only women in meetings or working out in the field, assumes the scarcity of females stems from her gender’s traditional aversion, for whatever reason, to science and math-related fields. (Women receive less than 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences, engineering and physics, according to a report from the National Science Foundation.) Wijetunge came to engineering through an early love of math, her favorite subject as a child. In college, looking for a practical application for that love, she turned to engineering.

With Brown and Caldwell, Wjetunge mainly works with geographic information systems (GIS), which digitally manipulate geographical data. She uses GIS for a variety of tasks, from designing systems to control runoff to upgrading aging infrastructure.

She’s faced challenges in her chosen field, occasionally having to carry or move heavy equipment on jobs. “But I can open a sewer manhole,” says the Sri Lankan-born Wijetunge, whose husband runs his own engineering firm. “It might take me a little longer, but I can do it.”

More subtle challenges come when her fellow engineers bond over traditionally male pursuits. “There are times when everyone’s talking about, say, fishing,” she says, amused. “You kind of feel like, ‘I don’t know what to say.’ ”

Some have even questioned why Wijetunge, with her outgoing personality, chose to be an engineer. “People have told me I’m such a people person, which is not an engineering trait,” she says. “But we need people people. You can design a wonderful system, but if you don’t get everyone on board, you can’t see it to completion.”

The Firefighter: Stacy Ruehl, 42

Outside the National Football League, it’s hard to find a more male-dominated profession than firefighting.

Nationally, 3.5 percent of firefighters are women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Howard County, the percentage is higher, but still an astonishingly low 12 percent.

But don’t tell Stacy Ruehl that the job is not for women. One of only five female lieutenants in the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services (out of 52), Ruehl feels that while firefighting is not a good fit for all women — just as it’s not a good fit for all men — it’s just right for her.

“It’s hard for me to say, ‘It’s difficult for me as a female,’ because I’ve never looked at it that way,” she says. “I just enjoy being part of a team, I enjoy learning all that I’ve learned. It’s just so dynamic. I love this job.”

Ruehl enjoys just about every aspect of firefighting: the demanding physical work, the close teamwork, the constant challenge to learn new techniques. “When I look back at these 18 years, I can’t imagine having any other career,” she says.

“It takes a special person to do this job,” she adds. “A really confident, strong, physically and mentally, type of person. A person who wants to be challenged.”

Reuhl, who lives in Ellicott City with her husband (also a county firefighter) and two children, ages eight and six, didn’t grow up wanting to fight fires. Out of college, she was looking at professions in the medical field. She was in school to become an Emergency Medical Technician when Howard County called and offered her a firefighting job.

She joined the department in 1997 and has risen to the rank of lieutenant. She is a “float officer,” which means she manages the 24-hour shift at stations throughout Howard.

Ruehl, who eventually completed her EMT certification and is also a trained nurse, concedes the male-heavy aspect of her job. “There’ve been plenty of times when I’m the only female on the shift,” she says, adding that she’s “never had an issue with it.” She also believes that on certain calls, patients are more comfortable dealing with a woman, and she feels a certain camaraderie with other female firefighters, especially other managers in her department.

“As a specific group, if you want to look at us that way, I think we’re pretty supportive of each other,” she says.

Firefighting is a physical job, male or female. Ruehl is happy that the physical standards for women and men are no different and proud that she’s met them.

“A length of hose or a ladder weighs the same, whether I’m picking it up or the guy next to me is,” she says. “I’ve always had that mindset. It’s very important for me that everyone I work with knows that, when we get into a [difficult] situation … and we need to do some work, I can do it.” 

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