Thriving As A Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry: Alexandra Kathryn Mosca & Doris Amen of The Morte Girls On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Be gender neutral. By that we mean, don’t blame your lack of immediate success on your gender. It’s easy to fall back on that, but that’s likely not the reason. Such self-limiting excuses as “I didn’t get hired because I’m a woman,” no longer cuts it.
In the United States in 2022, fields such as Aircraft piloting, Agriculture, Architecture, Construction, Finance, and Information technology, are still male-dominated industries. For a woman who is working in a male-dominated environment, what exactly does it take to thrive and succeed? In this interview series, we are talking to successful women who work in a Male-Dominated Industry who can share their stories and experiences about navigating work and life as strong women in a male-dominated industry. As a part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Alexandra Kathryn Mosca and Doris V. Amen, known as “The Morte Girls” are two high-profile New York City funeral directors. Alexandra is the author of three books and writes regularly about funeral service. Doris has been the subject of numerous documentaries, and in 2015 she self-published a compendium of some of her lighter moments spent in funeral service.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
We were each raised in a suburb of New York City. A well-rounded education was important to both our sets of parents. In addition to the required curriculum, Doris studied music and art, and discovered she had an aptitude for both. My days were filled with ballet, French, Greek, and creative writing lessons. Looking back, we were clearly being prepared for careers in the arts, or at least more traditional (read: female) careers. Interestingly, for Doris, the art lessons came in handy later in her work as a funeral director. “I’m a frustrated artist. In that respect I use my aptitude for art to embellish and personalize funerals.”
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
We’d like to tell you that, as little girls, we buried our Barbie dolls in shoeboxes (laughs) but that’s not the case. Funeral director, as a career choice, was definitely not on our radar.
Still, we both vividly remember the first funerals we attended. For me, it was my grandmother’s, when I was nine. The image of her lying in a gleaming metal casket, dressed in her favorite blue dress, remains indelible.
Doris recalls, at the age of 11, attending the wake of her teacher’s six-year-old daughter who died from meningitis. “The whole school attended, “ she recalls. “I’ll never forget the small white casket holding a child younger than me. It was a little surreal.”
Years later, those first experiences came to mind when, tangentially at first, funeral service entered our lives. Doris got engaged to a mortuary student; helping him with his studies sparked her own interest in becoming a funeral director. In my case, it was an after-school job as a receptionist in a funeral home that put me on the path to becoming a funeral director.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I turned my early negative experiences into a book. My 2003 memoir, Grave Undertakings was cathartic and now serves as a reminder of how far women have come.
Doris bought a funeral home and became one of the few female funeral home owners in New York City, and the only one in her immediate area. All these years later, the business she is still going strong.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Resilience. No matter how many times we got knocked down — and we often were — we didn’t let that stop us.
Empathy. In our line of work, empathy is paramount.
Sincerity. If you’re not sincere, people will see right through you.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Can you help articulate a few of the biggest obstacles or challenges you’ve had to overcome while working in a male-dominated industry?
If ever there was a male-dominated industry, surely it would be funeral service. When we began our careers as funeral directors, it was rare to see other female faces, and we were left to our own devices –and instincts — to find our place within the industry. The perception alone that women could not be funeral directors was a huge obstacle. In the early years of our employment, families would come into the funeral home and ask to speak with a funeral director. Upon explaining to them that we were in fact funeral directors, they were not convinced. It was not only our gender that worked against us, but our age as well. In funeral service, youth is not the asset it may be in other fields.
Merely getting hired was an exercise in frustration. Funeral home owners were primarily male, and the reasons they gave not to hire us ranged from: you won’t be able to do the required physical work, you would be a distraction to the male employees, and my wife would not like it if I hired you.
Additionally, there were a dearth of female images and role models. The ad campaign “If you can see her, you can be her” was years away. Female funeral directors were not generally depicted on television or in movies.
In those days, our choice of career was challenging, and we were discouraged at every turn. Still, it was a challenge we were determined to meet
Can you share a few of the things you have done to gain acceptance among your male peers and the general work community? What did your female co-workers do? Can you share some stories or examples?
Above all, we worked with our male colleagues, not against them. Ours was never an adversarial relationship; something we can’t emphasize enough. Early on, we realized that we were entering their territory, and if we wanted to earn their respect and show that we were up to the tasks at hand, we’d have to get down in the trenches with them. In funeral service that translated to embalming bodies side by side, traveling to morgues in dangerous neighborhoods late at night, and navigating roads in storms to make a removal at a deceased’s family residence. We were not looking for –and never asked for — special treatment or accommodations. If you say you are there to do a job, you can’t fall back on your gender when things get tough.
As for female co-workers, we had none. What’s more, there was an unfortunate lack of camaraderie and support from the few other female funeral director’s we encountered. We hope that is no longer the case.
What do you think male-oriented organizations can do to enhance their recruiting efforts to attract more women?
In funeral service, it’s not so much a question of recruiting more women -–it’s about recruiting the right women. There’s a holy host of young –and not so young — women on social media who seem to think working in funeral service is one big Halloween party, and they want to join the party. It most certainly is not, and that perception does a great injustice to the families we serve, and the industry at large. It is obvious that these women, making light of a very serious subject, have no sincere interest in funeral service.
We need to attract serious-minded women who want to be of service to others, and who have the necessary selflessness. This is a 24/7 lifestyle, and not an easy one to adapt to. You don’t just walk into a funeral home and declare your career intention without getting a true picture of what the business is about, and what it requires of a person.
To that end, we believe it’s vital that those contemplating a career observe a day (or more) in the life of a funeral director to get a true picture. Some who express an interest turn out to be ill-equipped to deal with the reality of a career in funeral service.
“There’s a perception that funeral home owners sit around and make phone calls, delegating the most difficult parts of our work to others,” Doris has said. Of course, that’s simply not so. It takes tremendous dedication, sacrifice, and commitment.
Ok thank you for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Be gender neutral. By that we mean, don’t blame your lack of immediate success on your gender. It’s easy to fall back on that, but that’s likely not the reason. Such self-limiting excuses as “I didn’t get hired because I’m a woman,” no longer cuts it.
- Believe in yourself and your abilities. Don’t let anyone tell you can’t do something.
- Respect your colleagues. Do not disparage or backstab others in your field.
- Follow the Golden Rule. There’s a lot to be said for treating others with the same kindness and concern you’d like to be treated with.
- Have a thick skin. Don’t take things personally; they usually aren’t meant that way.
If you had a close woman friend who came to you with a choice of entering a field that is male-dominated or female-dominated, what would you advise her? Would you advise a woman friend to start a career in a field or industry that’s traditionally been mostly men? Can you explain what you mean?
We’d tell her to go for it as she was doing it for the right reasons. By that we mean: because it’s a field that truly interests her. It’s doubtful that embarking on a career just to prove something would result in much job satisfaction. Choose a career that is rewarding and feeds your soul. If it also breaks ground and paves the way for other women (as our careers have ) then that’s a bonus.
Have you seen things change for women working in male-dominated industries, over the past ten years? How do you anticipate that it might improve in the future? Can you please explain what you mean?
We have seen drastic changes in funeral service. Women now outnumber men in mortuary schools across the country. Curiously, however, some women new to funeral service continue to see themselves as novelties. It’s unclear if that’s an excuse for not moving ahead, or a bid for attention. Whatever the reason, we believe that such a mindset holds one back. Unfortunately, the Press is often complicit in this misconception. Newspaper articles abound in which women are covered as if their employment status is unusual and astonishing. Such articles frankly strike us as ignorant and anachronistic. What’s more, they do all professional women a disservice.
These days, Being female is non-traditional industries is no longer the impediment it once was. It’s rare, if at all, for a woman to be held back by gender, at least in our industry.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Hands down, we choose Judge Jeanine Pirro. She’s a formidable and highly accomplished woman who had held her head high during personal and professional crises. A straight shooter, she holds her own with her male colleagues and clearly has the respect of her peers.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.