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Survival tips for working in a male-dominated professsion

Being a woman in a male-dominated workplace can be hard. Here are some strategies for survival and success

I have worked for the past 15 years in a male-dominated profession. Mine is one of those professions where it still feels like a surprise to walk into a meeting and find another woman at the table. One of those professions where the senior roles are predominantly (but not exclusively) held by men. One of those professions where the “ideal” of the profession conjures up the mental image of a man. Where “masculine” qualities are considered integral to the role.

These are my tips for not only surviving, but excelling in the male-dominated workplace. These tips have worked for me – they are borne of personal experience. They may not be suited to your workplace and you may disagree with some (or all) of them. If so, respond with a piece and continue the conversation.

Recognise that others will perceive you differently and will respond to you differently, because you are a woman

In my job it has been important for me to understand that both clients and colleagues view me differently because I am a woman. Sometimes that is a good thing, sometimes it isn’t. But it is crucial to be aware of it and sometimes adjust my approach or respond accordingly. This observation doesn’t just apply to male dominated professions, of course. But I feel it is more of an issue in such professions because the mere fact of being a woman in such professions is remarkable/a point of difference – both for clients and your colleagues. The more a profession ties its self-concept to “male” characteristics, the wider the gap between how men and women in that profession are treated.

I’ll give you an example. I have found that there are people – men and women – who find it very difficult to have a woman deal with them in an authoritative manner. Women friends of mine in quite different professions have found the same thing. This sometimes creates an aggressive reaction in circumstances where a man dealing with that person in a similarly authoritative way simply would not be met with the same reaction.

Recognising the different ways women are perceived, the different expectations placed upon us, the different ways women are treated, is just the first step. The next step is to work out what to do about it and how to handle it, in any given situation. But without the threshold step of recognizing the differential treatment, you don’t have a hope of transforming your behaviour in response (or working to have others transform theirs).

It is perhaps useful to note that differential treatment isn’t always a negative thing. I am not only a woman, but small in stature. In my early years on the job, I often felt this led to colleagues and clients under-estimating me. I talked to my father about it, and he commented that sometimes it is useful to be under-estimated. And I have found he is right – it can sometimes work to your advantage. In an adversarial profession (which mine is), an opponent who under-estimates you often means an opponent who is inadequately prepared.

Don’t be afraid to be hard when you have to be

Women are often afraid to be “hard” in the workplace. Sometimes that is because we are raised to please others. Or because we understand that women who make hard decisions or play hard-ball are perceived as “difficult” (or worse, a bitch). It is important to recognise these cultural reasons why women might not feel as comfortable being combative in the workplace. But having realised the reasons for inner reluctance, I recommend you take the step (when appropriate) and be “hard” or “difficult” or “aggressive”. And don’t apologise for it. Own it.

Make the most of the other women around you

It is easy to focus on the male colleagues who treat you as a curiosity in the workplace (rather than a serious contender) because you are a woman. It is difficult not to rise to anger when you are cut you off during meetings or when you realise you haven’t been invited to the all-male networking lunch. While you should notice these things and there is no reason not to be angry, it also helps sometimes to turn your energy to the women around you. Find a woman who understands your world, who can be on the end of the phone when you need to de-brief. Think about the women at your level, those senior to you and those junior to you. Actively work to create informal networks – have coffee and lunches, recommend other women for work, invite other women to conferences and other work-related events. Even if there aren’t many women in your direct universe at work, try to build relationships with women in your broader profession (or in different professions). Attend conferences or join an online forum. This goes beyond simply having other women around you who understand. These informal networks will create mentoring opportunities, knowledge-sharing opportunities and work opportunities.

Think about the impression you want to create

This tip is for those starting out in a profession or in a new role. I really believe that first impressions matter. I found that the first year in my current role (and in particular the first few months of that year) were very important in creating and then cementing an impression, a view in the workplace about who I was. I thought carefully about what I wanted that impression to be. And then I set about to make sure I created it. I wanted to be thought of as hard-working, so I worked very hard. I didn’t have kids at that time, so I had the luxury to work long hours and I did. The reputation was not only created, but I found that it endured over time, even when I subsequently had children and needed to work less. Although I reduced my hours considerably and have continued to work much more flexibly since then, people were understanding and didn’t see my changed approach to work as a problem. My reputation as someone who can be relied upon for hard work remained (despite the fact I was working less hard).

You might ask: why is this a tip for women? First impressions matter for everyone, don’t they? Of course, yes.

But I do feel that women have to work harder to create the impression they want, particularly in a male-dominated profession. You are working to overcome stereotypes you don’t even know are being applied to you.

An example – at a “welcome” event for new colleagues, the men were introduced to the group by reference to their education and their academic prowess. The women were introduced by reference to their hobbies, in particular their interest in restaurants/dining out, or fashion. This was so disappointing for the women of the group, who had worked so hard to be in the room in the first place. And once there, on a supposedly equal footing, the introduction to the wider profession was plainly sexist. It comes down to this: women need to work harder to be taken seriously, to be seen as a contender.

Be kind to yourself and learn from your mistakes

It is no secret that women are harder on themselves. That women are more likely to focus on their weakness than their strengths. How to counteract this tendency? Listen to your internal voice. When you find internal voice being critical, meet it with direct and overt kindness. I will often tell myself: don’t be so hard on yourself – we all make mistakes. The trick is to learn from them. Being able to stand back and assess what went wrong and how you might do better next time is going to stand you in good stead over the course of your entire career. If you are hard on yourself for every little thing you do that you perceive to be wrong, it will hold you back from learning how to be better. Consciously treat your missteps as opportunities. Take it from me – you can, and will, do better next time.