In today’s world, where many industries are still very male-dominated, being able to “make it” as a woman means having to learn how to successfully navigate disproportionately male workplaces.
From fields such as investment banking to today’s top money making STEM professions, the ratio of women in the workplace, and those rising to the “top” is less than ideal. In fields such a higher education as well, where people often assume gender-neutrality and equality, women only hold 31 percent of full professors at postsecondary institutions. In fact, the higher one goes in the educational system, the fewer women are present.
So, as a woman how do you “make it”?
In an ideal world, where workplaces were completely gender-neutral meritocracies, you wouldn't need to. You would just need to do your job, in the best possible way you could. Unfortunately, the world isn’t ideal. Even putting gender aside, a lot of workplaces will claim to be meritocracies, till one day the boss’s son-in-law gets promoted over a more deserving candidate. Add to that the gender equation, and it’s no surprise that there is so much controversy and debate about gender equality in the workplace. But that’s a story for another day. Until profession and places of work do indeed become gender-neutral meritocracies, here is some of the most useful and practical advice that I've come across in regards to succeeding as a female in a male dominated industry or workplace.
These five tidbits come from a variety of sources – from women who have reached the pinnacle of their careers, to those just starting out who can offer simple tips to make the start of your career more seamless. Even though I complied these with fellow women millennials in mind, I’d go as far to say that these tips could be relevant for anyone, regardless of gender, who wants to shine in their workplace but is having difficulty doing so due to whatever reasons.
Bond Outside the Office
If the guys seem to be going out for a beer or happy hour after work hours, then join in. You’ll find that a lot of the times, the best career opportunities come outside of the office. Also, being able to interact in a non-formal setting takes some of the pressure off, and will allow you to be yourself, get to know your colleagues and be appreciated for it. Sometimes, you may not be invited to those post work gatherings – that’s okay. If you aren’t then just create your own plan, and invite others out for a drink. Your initiative will be recognized, and besides, who can ever turn down happy hour?
Utilizing Your Strengths (even if they're stereotypes…)
This tip comes from Jane Fang, who has worked in a couple of male-dominated workplaces, and I think she states a valid point. She gives the example of her boss, who asked her how the interns were doing and feeling. She writes, “I’m willing to bet he asked me partly because I was the only woman there, and he assumed I was therefore most likely to know about people’s “feelings.” But you know what? I did.” Ultimately, this led a mutually beneficial relationship, and she was able to give her boss a live read on the group of interns. What this goes to show is that if you have certain strengths, such as being a good listener, empathizing, an approachable personality etc. then definitely use them to your advantage. Showing these skills will put you in good stead to be a future leader.
Surround Yourself with the Right people
Carolyn Everson, VP of global marketing solutions Facebook (a company whose net income is over $3 billion) says “aspiring female executives should surround themselves with people they can count on, while simultaneously being someone that others can rely on.” Knowing what you stand for is especially important as a woman, and you should be a person who can be counted on in regards to your strong beliefs. In other words, assert yourself and don’t flake out. Everson says, “It’s always about the people you choose to surround yourself with. In fact, I haven’t found a problem in business that wasn’t solvable with the right people in place.” Personally, I think this is something we all should recognize, especially when underrepresented in the workplace. No leader, man or woman, has gotten to the top without help and guidance along the way, and having a strong support system is not something one should avoid or try to be ashamed of.
It’s sad to see, but a lot of my female friends who work in high-stress environments have “burnt out”. Often, burning out is a process everyone can see happening to you, that you yourself are aware of but choose not to acknowledge till it gets to a point of no-return. You’re so tired, overworked and stressed beyond measure as a result of working like a madwoman to prove yourself, even at times when you don’t need to. Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, claims she experienced the same thing, and shares this advice, “I hope young aspiring female entrepreneurs will begin their careers knowing something that took me decades to learn: Not only is there no tradeoff between living a well-rounded life and high performance, but performance is actually improved when our life becomes more balanced.” She further iterates that women shouldn't be afraid of failure, especially when starting out, and should take the time to unplug and recharge.
Get a Mentor
Ideally, your mentor will be someone you look up to and respect, and with whom you share something in common. Considering the dearth of female professionals and leaders in a lot of fields, a mentor might be hard to find. Patricia Valoy, on Everyday Feminism writes about the tough time she had finding a mentor in her field of engineering. Ultimately, she used the internet and found a mentor via the site MentorNET. Networking websites such as LinkedIn are also great avenues to find mentors with similar backgrounds who can offer valuable advice. Valoy states that mentors don’t always have to be about a business connection, but can be someone who has had experiences you can learn from and who simply inspires you in various ways. That being said, having a mentor, or “sponsor” within your organization itself can be very helpful. As a career mentor alone, this could be someone who you respect within the workplace, and whom you feel comfortable around. Establishing a friendly relationship with them is key, so start establishing relationships with senior leaders, your boss etc. from the very start. Within your workplace itself, these are the people who will ultimately have your back and stand up for you, contributing to your career advancement.
Often, women are told that they cannot succeed in male-dominated fields because they lack the required skills, have too many other “womanly duties” or are just too emotional and sentimental. In my opinion, this is far for the the truth. The reality is that in a lot of male-dominated fields, women aren’t treated equally or given the fair treatment they deserve and expect, leading to an overarching sense of unwelcoming and discouragement. Sadly, this attitude will only can only change through the examination and revision of larger societal norms that stem from complex histories. Until then, it is most important to believe in yourself as a woman, and your power to succeed.