Breaking barriers

In her new documentary “Like a Woman,” photographer and filmmaker Gail Mooney chronicles 12 inspiring  women leading in their fields.

Story, photography and film stills by Gail Mooney

I’ve seen a lot of progress toward gender equality since I entered the workforce in the 1970s. But it has been slow. As a photographer and now a filmmaker, I was frequently the only woman in a room of colleagues.  

I wanted to make a film about a few women who are breaking barriers. I wanted to find out how they did it and how they feel about the current state of things. It has gotten better — today there are more women in male-dominated professions like mine. I feel urgency now to help swing the pendulum. It’s time.

Simona de Silvestro, racecar driver for Formula E and IndyCar Series, was in Europe for a Formula E race when we caught up with her for the film. She says she got into racing by watching races on TV with her dad when she was a kid. In fact, she’s been racing since she was 6 years old.

“As a woman, you have to prove yourself more than the boys,” she says. “It’s about having fun, being yourself. Work really hard and take the opportunities that are out there.”

Jenna Close, industrial photographer, drone operator and director of photography at Buck the Cubicle, served with me on the board of the American Society of Media Photographers. We’ve become good friends, and I talked to her about the profession and how much it’s changed in the past several decades. 

“I think a lot about how technical know-how plays into different gender paths with this industry being predominately male,” she says. “But it’s changing. Eventually being a female working in this profession won’t even be a question.” 

Captain Natalie Jones is a heavy lift helicopter pilot for Erickson Air Crane. She’s been flying helicopters since 2004. I interviewed her when she was in southern California to fight wildfires. 

“One of the accomplishments I’m most proud of, working with Erickson, is the fact I am their first female captain,” Jones says. “In the civilian world, I am it. I am a rarity. And I was a rarity when I first got that first job.

“If you think it, if you dream it, you can do it.”

Patrice Banks is an auto mechanic, engineer and owner of Girls Auto Clinic. I searched online for a “female auto mechanic” one day and Patrice, a mechanic in Philadelphia, came up. She offers workshops to women about basic car maintenance, so we decided to film one of her workshops. I saw how it empowered the women.

“I wanted to create a company that was going to educate and empower women,” Banks says. “It’s a great time to be a woman.”

Taylor Laverty-Deen is a senior airship pilot for Goodyear Airship Operations. I saw her on the TV show “Sunday Morning” and talked to her at the Goodyear Blimp base in southern California. Young women should remain open to possibilities, she has learned, because she never imagined that she’d be a blimp pilot. 

“There are only 4,000 active female commercial pilots out of 135,000,” she says. “And I am one of only three active female blimp pilots in the world.

“I started in a class of all men and I did well. There is pressure in a male-dominated industry to do well. You are looked at to almost do better.”

Deb Larson is former dean of the College of Engineering at California Polytechnic State University and current provost and vice president for academic affairs at California State University, Chico. An engineer and educator, she shared insights from her own experience about the future she sees for her students. 

“When I graduated in 1978, there weren’t many women in the engineering field,” she says. “In some ways I think we were trailblazers.”

Shonda Warner is a farmer, investor and founder of Farmacopia Farms in Oregon. She grows a variety of things, including blueberries, hazelnuts and hemp, which is her main crop. She produces CBD oils and salves — and transports it all from farm to consumer. 

“When I started in agriculture, there were very few women in grain trading,” she says. 

That didn’t stop her. She followed her passion.

“If you look in your heart and figure out what your passion is,” she says, “you’ll probably do just fine and you’ll have fun along the way.”

Judaline Cassidy is a plumber and founder/director of Tools & Tiaras Inc., which she started for young girls interested in trade professions. We filmed her and some girls taking a tour of the facilities of American Standard in New Jersey. 

“The only way we’re going to keep our country going is if we invest in kids and tell them, ‘You have value if you decide to be a plumber — equal value to if you decided to be a doctor,’’” she says.

Cassidy was the first woman accepted into the Plumbers Local Union 371 Staten Island, New York, and the first woman elected to the Examining Board of Plumbers Local Union No. 1.

“Jobs don’t have genders,” she says.

Olivia Sebesky is a motion graphics designer and art director. She designs video projections that are part of the backgrounds behind large performances and events. We caught up with her in Las Vegas when she was working with Aerosmith. 

“I wish I had had a mentor who reminded me it was OK to be feminine,” Sebesky says. “There wasn’t a track for me to follow, so I had to make my own rules and break some others to get to where I am.”

Barbara Van Cleve is a fine art photographer and rancher. Even when she taught English literature and photography — and served as Dean of Women at DePaul University in Chicago — she spent summers pursuing photography at her ranch in Montana. We talked about her project Women Ranchers and the body of work that came from it. Since her first major exhibition in 1985, she’s had more than 60 one-person shows.

“If you don’t have heart with what you see, you’re just not going to make it,” she says. “I became a photographer later in life, but it’s been a lifelong passion.”

Christine Theodoropoulos is dean of the College of Architecture & Environmental Design California Polytechnic State University. When she became an architect, she says, she was one of the few women in the profession. She now shares her knowledge with students at the university. 

She says she’s seen more women entering the profession, but admits it’s been slow, with only 10% of her female students enrolled in the school’s Construction Management program. A barrier to women’s entry, she believes, is gender bias in the construction business.

Wendy Crockett is a motorcycle mechanic in South Dakota and an endurance competitor. She’s the first woman to win the Iron Butt Rally, a nationwide scavenger hunt where riders meet at checkpoints and collect points along the way. The rider with the most points wins. Riders usually travel about 11,000 miles in 11 days.  

“There’s no such thing as a boy thing or a girl thing,” she says. “There’s the thing that speaks to you. And if it speaks to you, go out and do it. Go pursue your passion.”

Gail Mooneyis co-partner of Kelly/Mooney Productions, a visual communications company based in the New York City metro area. Gail has more than 30 years of experience, shooting for international magazines, major corporations and institutions. Her clients have included National Geographic, Smithsonian and Travel & Leisure magazines, to name a few.

A lifelong storyteller, Gail started as a photographer. In 1999, she began producing and shooting video projects. She has produced three short documentaries: “Freedom’s Ride,” a story about two diverse groups of high school students retracing the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s; “The Delta Blues Musicians;” and “Through the Hearts and Hands of Children,” a film about the New Jersey Youth Symphony. 

Her latest film, “Like A Woman,” is about women who are breaking barriers and working in male-dominated professions. 

For more information about “Like a Woman,” including a clip of the film, visit the project’s website,

This story originally appeared in the October/November 2020 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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