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Women breaking barriers in non-traditional job roles

NBC News correspondent Anne Thompson reports on how the gender gap is closing in skilled trades once dominated by me.
/ Source: TODAY

Maria Johnson’s job is anything but glamorous. Pushing and lifting is all part of a plumber's work in a cold Chicago winter. The rare woman in what's still a man's world --   the world of skilled trades.

“Whatever the men did, I did and did it better and faster.  So, that's -- and the plumbing company, I love my company, because they're the one that gave me the chance.”

More women are taking the chance, learning trades traditionally dominated by men.  Why? Jennifer Thornburg will tell you simple economics made her switch from working as a cable installer to an electrician.

“I needed a pension, and I needed nice benefits.”

As a plumber, Maria Johnson makes $34 an hour.

Dwarfing the salary the single mother of three first brought home as a tutor. Non traditional jobs pay up to 30 percent more on average than what's was once called woman's work. For example, a female receptionist earns on average $429 a week, where a female auto mechanic takes home $594.

But for some women, just working is not enough. They want a piece of the action.

The fastest growth has been in businesses typically thought to be owned by men.  The number of construction firms, factories, even garages now owned by women grew more than 17 percent from 1997 to 2002.

Case in point, Catherine Simpson always wanted to the change the world but the college graduate burned out on social work. So she decided to do something with her hands -- repair cars.

You have a fixed product, as opposed to in social work, feeling like you could spend a year with someone and not know if you ever were making a difference.

Now as an owner of two repair garages in Atlanta and with plans for more, Simpson firmly believes she is making a difference and her sign says it all.

“I definitely wanted my name out there, so that people knew this is woman owned.  And it is a marketing gimmick in a way.  People think, oh a woman.  Maybe this will be different.  Maybe I can trust her more.”

Trust is why Kim O’Connor is a customer. Once clueless about her car and ripe for rip-offs, O’Connor says she's now much savvier.

“I’ve leaned more about my car since coming here than I ever knew before. Because even when I don't ask questions, they offer a lot of information that's useful.”

And it's not just cars.  Home repair is becoming a do-it-herself business. With the number of women buying their own homes at an all time high, now they have their own tools, including a line developed by Barbara Kavovit, known as Barbara K.

“I mean this industry is a quarter of a trillion dollar industry and that makes up the paint, hardware, and tool sector.  And when there's not one product that you can go into a store and buy, that said to me that this is an underserved market,” Kavovit says.

Her company made $ 4 million in its first four months -- selling not in hardware stores, but at places like Bloomingdale’s and Bed, Bath and Beyond.

Simpson is making money too.  Her first garage turned in profit in just two years.

But some of her dreams are still elusive – to hire women mechanics

One of the biggest challenges facing women in non-traditional jobs is the lack of role models and mentors and access to work some want is still a challenge.

But even the strongest advocates admit old attitudes die hard as women work to prove trade skills are not limited by gender.