Northwest Woman

Woman at Work: A ‘Man’s World’ No More

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Meet five local women who hold careers in fields typically dominated by men, and discover what it took to find success.

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More than ever, women are taking on careers that they wouldn’t have considered just 50 years ago. From scientists to kickboxers, police officers and firefighters to professional pilots, today’s women are succeeding in careers that deviate from the norm, while also having families if they choose to do so.

Here, we meet five local women who hold careers in fields typically dominated by men.

Amy Grzyb, Firefighter and Paramedic

This Muskego, Wis., resident grew up in Wauwatosa, Wis., and graduated from college in 1998 with a degree in French. She began her work life in an office, but didn’t find it fulfilling.

“I asked myself what I wanted to do with my whole life, and I thought I would love to become a firefighter,” she says.

Always physically active and into sports, Grzyb started taking the necessary classes and soon secured a job as a firefighter and paramedic with the Oak Creek, Wis., Fire Department, where she’s worked quite happily since 2001.

“Every day is a new day, not of knowing what to expect,” she says. “The job is dynamic and I love its versatility. It’s a great job and there’s not a lot of turnover. It’s a beautiful career.”

Grzyb is also a wife and mom to two children, ages 3 and 1. She’s one of three women in a department of 50 firefighters. Her day-to-day duties are varied, and include responding to 911 calls, fires, car accidents and paramedic emergencies. When it comes down to it, Grzyb says, there are a lot of skills and specialties required, and being a woman firefighter definitely has its advantages.

“I think women can relate on a different level to certain types of patients – such as OB or pediatric patients,” she says. “And as a woman, size can be an advantage in this career. Being smaller in size can help you to fit into smaller spaces. Whether as a man or a woman, we all can bring special skills to this job. It’s all about teamwork and we always say we’re only as good as our next call. We all have to double-check each other.”

Grzyb loves her career, but acknowledges there have been hurdles. When she first started out, she felt like she had something to prove.

“It can take extra effort as a female to gain trust and let them – the guys – know I knew what I was doing,” she says. “I did feel I had to prove myself worthy of being there.”

She feels fortunate that the team of men she works with has treated her well. More pressing challenges revolve around balancing work and home life. Grzyb worked as a firefighter for 10 years before marrying her husband, who’s also a firefighter. When children came along, it was an “extreme change.”

“Firefighting is a 24-hour shift,” she says. “With children, the schedule can be a challenge, and emotionally and mentally I changed. The risk factor weighs more heavily on you with little people depending on you. I am definitely more conscious now of dangerous situations.”

Though Grzyb says she and her husband have a good relationship and support each other, at times they also have been like “two ships passing in the night.” Grzyb manages her stress level by staying active with swimming and yoga.

Women interested in her field should keep a positive attitude and respect people who hold higher-level positions, she says.

“You also have to really put yourself out there and keep pushing yourself,” she says. “Stay physically fit. It’s really important that first year.” Also, she adds, “Work hard, volunteer to go first, ask questions and learn from people. It’s an honor to do this job – our job is serving people. You have to like and want to help people. You sometimes spend time with strangers on the worst days of their lives. It’s a job that really needs to be respected.”

Kiza Butler, Police Officer

Originally from Palatine, Kiza Butler lives in Rockton and works for the Detective Division at the Rockton Police Department. There are three women, including herself, in a department of 17 police officers.

It was a high school boyfriend who first sparked her interest in law enforcement.

“We used to love to watch the show ‘Cops’ together,” she says with a chuckle. During college, she took a civil rights course and met a Beloit sergeant who inspired her to look at law enforcement as a viable career. Though she was interested, she put her dream career on hold for some time, due to a pregnancy. She later married and went to school to become a police officer. In 2002, she started working for the McHenry County Police Department. She moved to Rockton in 2006.

“Being a detective is super rewarding,” Butler says. “I work one-on-one with families and do a lot of follow-up with people and try to help them, whatever their issues are. It’s always nice to see things through.”

While some people might think the job would be harder for women, Butler believes female police officers have certain advantages at times. One of these is bringing different verbal skills to the job.

“I have the ability to de-escalate situations, as opposed to accelerating them,” she says. “I can talk down a situation.”

But the life of a female police officer doesn’t come without certain trials. A single mother to three children, ages 16, 14, and 5, Butler admits it’s a tough balance at times.

“I was the first officer in our division to be pregnant, which brought some issues along with it,” she says. She was hesitant to tell people at work when she first found out about her pregnancy.

“I also have to learn how to change from work to home, and try not to be a police officer at home,” Butler says. “The switch from cop to mom can be difficult. But I do things to handle the stress, like working out every day. I have good friends to help me out and, in Rockton, everyone is super nice and family-oriented.”

Throughout her career as a police officer, Butler has had moments when she felt the need to “prove” something – not only to her peers, but also to the public, which doesn’t always respect a female officer as an authority figure. At times, she’s had to work twice as hard as male counterparts to show colleagues that she’s “not a schlub,” she says.

Because of these things, Butler makes it a goal to be the best at what she does.

“I worked 10 times as hard just to show I was as capable as them, and I continue to do so,” she says. “It took a few years, but my coworkers are very accepting now.”

When it comes to giving advice to women interested in choosing a law enforcement career, Butler believes the most important thing is to remember they’re not just police officers.

“Don’t be so focused on being a cop that you forget your friends,” she advises. “Don’t forget that you’re also a wife, mom, sister and daughter. Put those things at the forefront, and learn how to have that separation of work and home life.”

Sue Fiduccia, Coroner

Ever since she first set foot in the Winnebago County Coroner’s Office during the 1970s, Rockford native Sue Fiduccia has found it satisfying to reassure grieving families that their deceased loved ones are being handled with great care.

Fiduccia’s late husband worked as a sheriff’s deputy and awakened her interest in the career. She always enjoyed hearing the stories he told.

“But I didn’t want to be a police officer,” she says. Instead, she began working in the coroner’s office in 1972.

“I dealt with families and really loved the intrigue,” she recalls. “What you see originally may not be what you end up with. I liked being around the families and the fact that we were able to give them the opportunity to probe deeper into the cause of death of a loved one – to let them know that people cared.”

Fiduccia became office secretary in 1987 and was appointed county coroner in 1995. She has been re-elected in every election since.

“There have been a lot of challenges at times,” she says. “When I became coroner in 1995, people didn’t readily accept me as a person of authority. But as time went on and they saw my value, they would come to me and ask questions.”

Fiduccia has two children. She recalls many instances when she was hosting family on holidays and had to leave when duty called.

“But my family learned to adapt,” she says. “It’s a 24-hour job, but you learn to handle it.”

In a job that would be emotionally draining to many people, Fiduccia tries to look at the brighter picture. Her constant goal is to respect the dead while showing compassion to their families.

“I show them that their loved ones are not just another number,” she says. “I work each case as hard as I can. Every case is very special to me. I also have a great belief in God. During difficult times, I look toward Heaven and say, ‘God, can you help me here?’ I go for walks. When I’m stressed, I use the bike path and do a lot of thinking. I turn it back to God. And God shows me He is there.”

During some of the darkest hours on the job, God has shown His presence, says Fiduccia. Several years ago she asked a local quilter’s guild to provide hundreds of colorful, themed quilts to use for covering deceased infants and children. She thought the quilts would be a nice replacement for the typical plain-white sheets.

Twice, those quilts have turned up in a most inspiring way. Once, Fiduccia inadvertently picked up a quilt depicting Noah’s Ark for an abandoned baby whose name turned out to be Noah. Another time, she unknowingly covered a child with a quilt that depicted images of his favorite cartoon character – a character for whom he also was nicknamed.

Compassion at the coroner’s office doesn’t stop at children. All of the deceased, including the homeless, receive a proper burial. They are never “thrown away like garbage,” she says.

One little-known fact people might be surprised to learn: the coroner is the only person in the county who can arrest the sheriff. If anything happens to the sheriff, the coroner becomes the sheriff; likewise, if anything happens to Fiduccia, the sheriff will become the new coroner.

“It’s all legal and technical,” she says with a chuckle.

Fiduccia believes women interested in pursuing a role as coroner should go for it.

“I advise women to do what is best for them,” she says. “If you are interested, work with a lot of people in law enforcement and spend a lot of time with them. Say hello. Pretty soon those guys will accept you, even if at first they don’t. Women are much more accepted now.”

Nancy Kaney, Pilot

Rockford resident Nancy Kaney grew up fascinated by the world of travel. During high school, she was a tomboy who initially wanted to become an engineer.

While in high school, Kaney received a gift of flying lessons from her father, who had an affinity for aviation and was friends with a flight instructor. Kaney says the instructor was a “tiny lady” from South Africa who told fascinating stories.

After obtaining a private flying license from this instructor, Kaney began asking questions about flying professionally. The instructor helped her to research aviation programs. After completing classes at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., Kaney completed a four-year degree in aeronautical science in Arizona.

She began flying for local small businesses, became certified as a flight instructor and worked at the flight school for a year. During that time, Kaney also worked for a restaurant and made some important friends.

“I met Art Kelly, who was a retired TWA pilot,” she recalls. “He had the best stories and he took me under his wing. He helped me to get hired at Scenic Airlines in Las Vegas and encouraged me to go for TWA.”

Indeed, TWA hired Kaney, but then put the position on hold while it navigated some legal issues. She flew for the U.S. Postal Service until a position with TWA opened up. She worked for TWA for three years, then in 1998 secured a pilot job with another major airline, where she has worked since.

“I’ve flown to all sorts of great places, such as Cairo, Aman and Russia,” she says.

In 2000, Kaney met her husband and they moved to Rockford. She has a 20-year-old stepson and a 9-year-old son, and balances everything as best as she can.

“I went back to flying when my son was still a baby,” she says. “It has helped to have my husband and family, as well as great nannies and babysitters, all local. I also try to minimize the time I’m out flying. But it can be hard.” She provides an example. “I just came home from a trip to Europe, and I find I’m behind with groceries and housecleaning.”

The workplace challenges she faces are the same ones her male peers face, such as procedural changes made after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But when it comes to being a “woman pilot,” she has not faced much turbulence.

“I try not to think of myself as a woman pilot; I think of myself as a pilot,” she says. “Some women getting into this field might meet resistance, but the age group of the people I started flying with – for them it was not that big of a deal. Women pilots before me had already blazed the trail. It’s been quite the opposite of what some might expect, actually. Little girls get excited about seeing pilot women. I’ve received a lot of neat attention. Overall, I’ve had a positive experience and a lot of great co-workers.”

Kaney adds that it’s a wonderful time for women to be in aviation.

“The field is seeing a huge influx of women,” she says. “If a career in this field is what your heart desires, dive right in and go for it.”

Rickie Gomes, MMA Fighter and Coach

Rockford-area resident Rickie Gomes got hooked on fighting after she enrolled in a cardio kickboxing class in 2006 and began staying late to “spar with the guys.” After taking further classes in sparring, she developed an interest in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) – a full-contact combat sport derived from other combat sports and martial arts, which allows the use of striking and grappling techniques.

“I was then asked if I wanted to try a fight, and I have a ‘try anything once’ attitude,” she says. “So, a few months later, I had my first kickboxing fight. I won and kept winning.”

At the time Gomes started fighting, female fighters were “pretty sparse.” She knew if she wanted to continue to fight, she would have to be open to learning other styles of fighting.

“This also was when the MMA world had started to skyrocket,” she says. “I knew my stand-up would be hard to match, but I needed to start working on wrestling and Jiu Jitsu…. There weren’t any women to train with at the time. It’s gotten better now. There are a lot of women training, but the majority of the time I’m still training with all guys.”

Gomes has fought locally as well as around the country. She’s earned several titles, including the 2008 KICK/WAKO National Kickboxing Championship, the 2011 IKF World Title and the 2015 Women 135 XFO.

When she has downtime, Gomes participates in professional MMA fights every few months, though she says things changed in 2012.

“I became pregnant with my beautiful daughter, so everything slowed down,” she says. “I could no longer participate in classes, but I continued to train on my own as much as possible.”

Like a warrior, Gomes continued training until she was 8.5 months pregnant and could no longer keep her balance while shadowboxing. After her daughter’s birth, she worked out a deal with local gyms to hold private coaching lessons at their facilities.

She offers private lessons three or four days per week. Her students range in age from 16 to 50, and the majority are women looking to have a great workout while also learning to defend themselves. Some of her students are involved in fights. Gomes is head coach to WAKO 2014 Jr. Girls IR Kickboxing Champion Alyssa Nicosia.

“Having a student fight is more emotionally draining and rewarding than any of my own fights,” she says. “When one of my students is fighting, I have the responsibility of protecting someone’s son or daughter. If they do poorly, that weight is on my shoulders, but when they do well, that is the best feeling in the world. I know how good it feels to win a fight. It means so much to be able to give that to someone else.”

Gomes also occasionally teaches classes at Northern Illinois Combat Club in Loves Park, Ill. Most of her students in this club are men, and most have been respectful and open to learning from her, she says.

“Fighting has evolved a lot in the past three years,” Gomes says. “Some groups are not as accepting of women fighters. Some guys just don’t want to be taught by females. But there are women who know what they’re doing, and the guys find this out.”
Gomes also works as an administrative coordinator for Ingenium Aerospace in Rockford.

“It takes a lot of sacrifice, especially with a one-year-old,” she says of balancing it all. “I want to spend more time with my daughter now. This is the big difference, being a woman as opposed to a man, in this sport.”

Gomes encourages women to pursue fighting as a way to build up their confidence. She also says learning to fight can save one’s life. She hates the idea of being viewed as frail and defenseless.

“Fighting has completely changed my life,” she says. “I would not be the strong, confident, healthy woman I am today without it. I am a better person and a better role model to my daughter because of it. I can now lead by example when it comes to setting goals and accomplishing them. Teaching and coaching gives me the power to impact another person’s life in such a rewarding way – even if it’s just helping them to sleep better at night because they don’t feel so defenseless.”

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