Experts estimate that women make up almost half - about 46% - of the U.S. workforce. While it's difficult to get a headcount on the number of females working in "non-traditional" environments like manufacturing, science and engineering, it is generally believed that the ranks of women in these industries is growing, though well under half. Women are becoming more visible in non-traditional occupations, however. For this special report, IMPO spoke to six such women to discuss what it's like to be a female in a male-dominated industry.

Not surprisingly, some say the road to the top has not always been easy. Some had to obtain special permission to take male-dominated courses in school; others have been expected to get coffee at meetings. Even the women who say they've never faced gender-related discrimination admit they had to make difficult choices because they were both a full-time employee and full-time mother.

Interestingly, all the women interviewed - even those who say they had difficulty achieving their goals - say it was worth the bumps along the way. Here are their stories.

Charlene Begley, 34
President and CEO, GE Fanuc, Charlottesville, VA

Charlene Begley exemplifies the phrase "father knows best." On her dad's advice, she majored in finance at the University of Vermont, even though she knew she wasn't interested in investment banking. "My goal out of college was to get into a leadership-development program, but my father told me that if I understood finance I would be a great business person," says Begley. "That turned out to be incredible advice." With that statement, Begley sums up a whirlwind career that led her to the top-ranking position at GE Fanuc at the very young age of 34.

Begley got her start with the corporate giant when she joined its Financial Management Program at GE Transportation Systems in 1988. After two years she joined GE's Corporate Audit Program. "This is a group that GE uses as a consulting arm to drive initiatives throughout the company," she says. During four years with the audit group, Begley traveled "100% of the time around the world working night and day," she says. "I had zero life, but the learning process was unbelievable."

She left the Corporate Audit Program to become vice president of operations for GE Capitol's Mortgage Services. She then successfully led the Six Sigma effort for GE Transportation, then moved up to the position of CFO at the Transportation division. In 1998 she joined GE Plastics as director of finance for GE Plastics-Europe. In 1999, Begley was promoted to vice president of the Corporate Audit Staff and worked with GE businesses to accelerate e-business, global sourcing and price optimizing. Shortly after, Begley became involved in the GE Specialty Materials Business that followed the acquisition of Honeywell. Finally, she was promoted to the president and CEO position at GE Fanuc in September 2001.

Begley shrugs off her youthful success. "I know that being a CEO with a large company at the age of 34 sounds wacky, but I've had a lot of luck," she says. She adds that being a woman may have had something to do with her fast-paced ride to the top.

"GE has a huge focus on improving diversity," she says. "We use a process that identifies the highest-potential, diverse talents, finds them a mentor, gets them training and decides what their next job should be. That process benefited me tremendously because I was lucky enough to be identified early in my career as one of the high-potential, diverse talents, which means they focused on me every year. I have to admit that being a woman has been a huge advantage for me."

However, Begley cautions that women who want to enter the industrial workforce shouldn't count on being promoted simply because they are women. "You still have to be phenomenal at whatever you're doing," she says. "You should always over-deliver on your commitments and anticipate the next three steps of the process so you're always ahead of the game. This will impress the people around you so much you won't have to worry about your next job - they'll find it for you."

JoAnn Brumit, 55
CEO, Karlee Corp, Garland, TX

From the time she was in high school, JoAnn Brumit knew she was destined for a life that differed from the route most women pursued in the 1960s. Perhaps that's why she requested special permission to take mechanical drawing instead of home economics at her Houston, TX, high school.

"I was never interested in doing traditional things," says Brumit. "And the thought of home economics didn't appeal to me, so I got special permission and became the first girl to take mechanical drawing because that just seemed so much more interesting."

That's probably due to the influence of her father, an electrical and mechanical engineer. "In my family it didn't matter whether you were male or female. If you wanted to help dad fix the car, you just did it," says Brumit. "I grew up in a great environment because my father believed we could be anything we wanted to be, male or female, so long as we worked really hard at it."

Brumit applied this work ethic wholeheartedly. She entered the workforce right out of high school as a receptionist at a local sheet-metal house. At the same time, she took evening courses at the University of Houston where she earned a degree in accounting. Brumit applied what she learned at school and on the job and eventually earned the position of controller at the company, and stayed there for nine years. Following that, she went to work for an independent oil producer, where she was one of a small handful of women in the industry.

Despite the fact that she was usually in the minority, Brumit says she rarely encountered discrimination. However, she does admit that she occasionally encountered difficulties when it came to allocating responsibilities. "When I would attend a meeting at a male-dominated organization, they looked to me for more secretarial duties like getting coffee and taking notes rather than leadership activities," she says.

But Brumit took it in stride. "I never felt that I couldn't compete in any environment," she says. "I think being a woman worked to my advantage because it often piqued interest in some of the male clients I had on the phone. They wanted to see who was out of their element, and once I got their attention, I was able to get a foot in the door. Then they could see I was knowledgeable and could talk on an intelligent level. I earned their respect."

Once she had enough experience under her belt, Brumit struck out as an independent consultant and provided accounting services to local businesses. One of them was Karlee Corp., a manufacturer of precision sheet metal and machined components. She served as a consultant to the firm before assuming ownership of the company in 1983.

Under her leadership, the former garage-based machine shop became an $80 million company with sales that have increased an average annual rate of 35%. During the year 2000, the company was able to increase its labor force by 36.5% and its facility size by 85,000 sq. ft. The company received the 2000 Malcolm Baldrige Award, which recognizes companies that demonstrate outstanding achievements in quality and business excellence.

As a model of excellence herself, Brumit advises other young women in male-dominated industries to try not to be too aggressive. "I see a lot of women who try to come off as one of the guys, but they usually end up getting nowhere," she says. "I think what works best is to take a softer approach by sitting back and listening and observing. This will lead to being knowledgeable and that will get you the results you want in the end."

Annette Clayton, 38
President, Saturn Corp., Spring Hill, TN

It's difficult to say whether it's a natural talent or a nurtured one that helped Annette Clayton, 38, achieve her new position as the president of Saturn Corp. Clayton, who grew up on a small farm outside of Xenia, OH, was exposed to industry at an early age. "My father worked in the auto industry, so there were a lot of car enthusiasts in my family," says Clayton. "My dad and I often restored vehicles together when I was a kid, so I think that developed a lot of my interest in manufacturing and it certainly fostered a lot of my interest in cars and trucks."

Clayton earned a bachelor's degree in general engineering from Wright State University in Ohio and a master's degree in engineering management from the University of Dayton in 1992. She actually began her automotive career before she received her undergraduate degree, landing a job in GM's Moraine, OH, assembly plant in 1983. "I would work 10 weeks, then go to school for 10 weeks during my last three years of undergraduate study," says Clayton.

After graduation, Clayton remained at the Moraine plant and held various production, engineering and maintenance assignments. In 1992, she was promoted to area manager of body operations at GM's Fort Wayne, IN, plant. In 1995, Clayton was promoted to area manager of general assembly. Two years later, Clayton was appointed assistant plant manager at Fort Wayne, then moved to plant manager of GM's Oshawa, Ontario, truck assembly plant in 1999. In April 2000, Clayton became involved in implementing GM's global manufacturing system in North America.

While working in these positions, she helped launch the original and redesigned midsize Chevrolet Blazer and GMC full-size pick-up trucks.

These experiences, she says, provided her with a knack for bringing new automobiles to market and handling the manufacturing challenges associated with getting the plant ready to produce a new product. In April 2001, this talent helped her land the position as president of Saturn.

Clayton attributes her success to her technical competence and interpersonal skills, which she says have little to do with the fact that she's a woman. However, she does admit that being a woman has been an advantage on the job. "Fifty percent of the buyers of our products are women," she says, "so if you think about understanding the customer, being a woman may certainly be an asset." She adds that being a woman has never held her back from climbing the ladder of success. "My gender has never been an issue while working for GM," she says. "I always focused on the job and never expected that discrimination would be a problem and it hasn't. As a matter of fact, GM has increased the number of female executives in the organization. At Saturn, about 40% of our senior leaders are women. So when you're in a meeting or at work you don't find yourself alone as a female at GM."

This was not the case at engineering school. "I recall sitting in some of my first engineering classes and realizing I was the only woman," she says. The low number of women in engineering schools and the fact that GM and Saturn have a commitment to diversity led Clayton to advise interested young women to give a career in engineering serious consideration.

For women already in manufacturing careers, Clayton tells them to work hard and contribute to the plant every day. "I didn't spend a lot of time and effort trying to manage my career. I spent most of my energy trying to make whatever plant I was in a better place to work," says Clayton. "And that has rewarded me well. I think it's a good strategy for any woman or man."

Pamela Lopker, 47
Founder and CEO, QAD, Inc., Carpinteria, CA

As the daughter of a military father, Pam Lopker traveled the world most of her life. But when her family settled in the Silicon Valley about the time she was preparing for college, Lopker knew she was ready for a serious commitment to her future. "I majored in mathematics and economics at the University of California at Santa Barbara," she says, "and also took computer science and programming courses because I knew computer programming was a high-growth career area."

Her first two jobs out of college were in computer programming with firms that provided software for a variety of customer types. "I worked for restaurants, manufacturers, real estate firms and anyone else that needed software," she says. "It was difficult to deal with all the types and needs of such a variety of companies. I always knew that verticalizing on a particular need would be a better choice for a software company."

So, in 1979 at the age of 27, Lopker struck out on her own and started QAD, Inc., which creates enterprise software for the manufacturing industry. "I saw the opportunity and knew there were potential clients because I had worked with manufacturing companies and saw a real need to improve the software systems around the manufacturing process. That's been QAD's focus ever since."

The company has demonstrated impressive growth over the last 20 years. With clients including Avery Dennison and GE Lighting, QAD has grown from a staff of one to a 1,600-person company with revenues of $239 million in fiscal 2000. But creating software for manufacturing firms wasn't Lopker's exact goal, she says. "When I started my education, I was drawn toward areas that I was good at," she says. "I was good at math, which took me to technical areas like computer programming. There weren't a lot of women around then, but I was good at it so I followed that path," she says.

Lopker doesn't feel that being a woman has been an advantage or a disadvantage. "I think it's a people issue," she says. "You simply find an area that you're good at and promote yourself in that particular area. No matter who you are, there are advantages and disadvantages to any circumstances."

For example, she says the manufacturing community doesn't expect to see a woman running QAD and "may not think we're credible. But on the other hand, I may get some appointments that I wouldn't simply because I'm a woman."

With that in mind, Lopker's advice is, "Don't expect anyone to give you money or advantages because you're a woman. Instead, work hard to achieve the goals that you have set for yourself."

Julie Schlueter, 53
General Manager, Valley Craft, Lake City, MN

It may seem odd that someone who holds a bachelor of arts degree, a masters degree in international management, and who was pursuing a PhD in French literature at the University of Minnesota would become the general manager of Valley Craft, a high-quality metal fabricator. But it makes sense to Julie Schlueter.

"Upon graduation, I decided that I didn't want to end up as a junior professor in the publish-or-perish environment of academia because the costs are high and the pay is low," says Schlueter. "So I left in 1979 and decided to try my hand in the business world." Through her work at the University, Schlueter knew many area companies needed foreign-language speakers who understood the cultural differences. "So I started marketing myself as someone who could translate at business meetings and teach foreign language to their employees," she says. "And I found myself in a position to network my way into several large area companies."

This allowed Schlueter to forge a relationship with Rosemount, Inc., where she started her career as a secretary. "My deep dark secret is that I entered industry through the back door," she says. "They brought me in as a contract secretary with a kind of 'wink-wink we know you are going to be promoted in six months' kind of attitude, which was OK because those were the times and I expected it. But since then, I haven't turned back."

Schlueter's progress to the top proves that. From her position with Rosemount where she worked on international projects, Schlueter moved to Honeywell. There she held a succession of positions including supervisor of customer service for Honeywell High-Tech Trading, manager of contracts for Air Transport Systems, director of contract management for Military Avionics, director of North American Monitoring Systems, and business leader for Phoenix Control in Boston - a Honeywell manufacturing subsidiary with $29 million in sales and 120 employees. Then in February 2001, Schlueter made the move to Valley Craft, a division of Liberty Diversified Industries in New Hope, MN.

Despite the fact that Schlueter entered industry through the back door, she says she has faced few gender-related challenges. "I would be lying if I said it wasn't challenging to be a woman in industry in the 1970s, but most of my work-related difficulties didn't have anything to do with being a woman; they were organizational challenges," says Schlueter.

However her international positions led her to travel a lot, which made being both a mother and full-time employee challenging. "When I had small children, it wasn't unusual for me to be working 10 to 12 hours a day or going out on international business negotiations for three weeks at a crack," she says. "It takes its toll, but my husband was able to work just 40 hours a week, so he took over a lot of the responsibilities."

While Schlueter admits that she "carried a lot of guilt around" as a working mother, she says she was not discriminated on the job because she didn't "play the mommy card."

"The bigger concern of the organization was, did I get the job done?" she says. "I never felt like I couldn't have my kids' pictures out or that I couldn't say I was going to a conference or taking my kid to the dentist. When you're working 60 hours a week and doing a great job, what are they going to say?"

Schlueter, in fact, feels she was able to do well at her job because of her gender. "Women somehow seem to be able to keep a lot of balls in the air and do it with a degree of serenity," she says. "And we usually connect better verbally than our male counterparts, which is what's needed to be successful in today's work environment. Success no longer comes from winning in a competitive way. It comes from nurturing, giving back to those who have helped you and solving problems, rather than peeing on trees."

Schlueter advises young women to enter the world of industry. "While the number of women in operational roles in quality and production has been increasing, the population of women in engineering schools has been disappointing," she says. "I encourage more women to become technologists because I think we bring a softer style of management and have the ability to break out of the stereotypical engineer personality."

Karen Willingham, 38
Business Unit Manager, Avery Dennison's Variable Image Tag & Label Division, Framingham, MA

Karen Willingham entered the world of manufacturing straight out of high school as a rewind inspector with Rexam Medical Packaging, Ashland, MA. At age 18, she says, "I wasn't sure if I was going to like it. But I liked the people and I liked the work, so I stuck with it and in 1986, I was made a production supervisor and moved up the ladder from there."

There were only 50 or so people in the medical-packaging production facility, few of whom were women. "In manufacturing, there were only about four women, including me," says Willingham. Despite being in the minority, Willingham found herself quickly assuming more responsibilities in the plant. After her promotion to production supervisor, which she says she received due to "the drive and initiative I displayed by coming up with ideas to improve efficiency and the general level of output," Willingham became a customer service manager. She excelled in this role because she had a strong manufacturing background that allowed her to schedule efficiently and satisfy customers. She knew first-hand what could and could not be done in production.

In 1990, Willingham was named Quality System Manager and was back on the plant floor to help the firm achieve ISO 9000 certification. "During that time I was also put in charge of all the team activities and helped the company make major improvements like streamlining and shortening cycle times." It made sense that when the plant manager's position opened up later that year, Willingham was offered the job. "I didn't have to interview for this position," she says. "It was considered a promotion, and everyone in the plant was really supportive of it."

Despite the support, Willingham says she still felt the need to prove herself because she was a woman in a male-dominated industry. "I would never say I was discriminated against because I was a woman," she says. "But I always felt the need to work twice as hard as the men in the company to be recognized. It wasn't something I was made to do; I just felt I had to. But this was an asset, rather than a burden because it helped me get to the top."

Willingham recently took a newly created position at Rexam that was similar to a production supervisor. While she enjoyed the work, the position required "100% travel from Monday through Friday, and that was too much on my family," says Willingham, a mother of four. In order to spend more time at home, she assumed her current position at Avery Dennison in March 2001 as a business unit manager. She says her background in manufacturing is especially helpful in her role because she understands the factors involved in the production and scheduling environment.

Willingham recommends a career in manufacturing to other women, and suggests, "If you are interested in being in manufacturing and progressing, you have to believe in yourself," she says. "You must have the confidence to not back down when other people challenge you for being the odd-woman out."