by: Marjorie Mclaughlin
As a woman, working in a male-dominated field can be extremely rewarding. Many technology and industry-driven corporations are seeking to increase diversity in their workforce, particularly among their management ranks. Opportunities abound to both gain initial employment and to advance within such companies. This is good news, considering that such industries typically offer higher pay and greater benefits than traditionally-female industries. For many women, however, working with mostly male counterparts can be intimidating. You will still find many men in these fields who are unaccustomed to working with women, and some may be wary or even openly resentful of your presence.
By following some of the tips listed below, women can help to create a more comfortable environment and thereby increase their chance for success. Although some of the suggestions are admittedly less-than-PC, remember that many men in these industries are still growing accustomed to having women in their midst. In many ways, working in such fields is like taking a thirty or forty year step back in time. In these still-early days of breaking barriers, it can be helpful to ease into the transition. Employers are more likely to advance a worker that is admired by her peers. While performing your job well is the primary factor in gaining peer respect, there are also a number of subtle dynamics that can influence how your male counterparts judge you. These tips will help with those less-obvious nuances. There are certainly more direct approaches that you can take, but this may be a case where subtlety is the most effective path.
1. Avoid the Hen House
It isn’t necessary to treat the other women in your workplace like they are the plague, but it is wise to treat them as if they have the plague. Men become nervous when they see women in packs, and many automatically think that you are talking about them or engaging in some form of anti-male gossip. When you are working with mostly men, you need to demonstrate that you are comfortable being around men. This is especially important if you are interested in gaining a management position where you will be overseeing the work of primarily male employees. It is best to be polite to the other women at your job, and engage in brief, work-related exchanges. Skip the lunch-time walkercise, the mid-afternoon coffee klatch, and any form of on-site female mentoring or support group meeting. Rather than being seen as “one of the girls” who is automatically grouped together with the other women at your job, you will be viewed as an individual, meaning that you and your accomplishments are more likely to stand out.
2. Prepare to Take Center Stage
As one of few women working with many men, you are a veritable celebrity, and you should consider that you are always on display. You will frequently be the only woman in a meeting room or office full of men. As such, it is only natural that your actions and appearance will be noticed and scrutinized more than those of your male counterparts. Don’t be surprised when coworkers comment on a look you had on your face during a certain part of a meeting, or ask why you had your head down during another part. It can be helpful to consider your work day as you would a performance in a play. Be mindful of your posture, expressions, and gestures. Maintain eye contact with the speaker at a meeting, and avoid the common female habit of nodding in agreement while others are speaking. By focusing on your task or on the meeting, you will eventually cease to notice or worry that others are watching you.
3. Use Your Difference to Your Advantage
It is unfortunate the extent to which humans judge each other based on appearance. It is, however, a reality, and the judgment of a woman’s appearance can be the harshest of all. Employers often associate a worker’s professionalism in appearance as an indication of the quality of his or her work. As a female, you possess the distinct advantage of being able to stand out where your male counterparts cannot, and you should take advantage. Just because you work with men, it is not necessary to attempt to look or to dress like one. If the nature of your work is not heavily industrial, wear appropriate skirts and dress shoes. A good rule of thumb is to highlight one attribute at any given time. If you do wear a skirt, pair it with a conservative top and/or jacket. Conversely, match a more fitted top with your pant suits. Your hair and makeup are other areas where you can display a polished and professional appearance. Looking your best can work to your advantage in all areas of your career, and displaying an attractive appearance is always appropriate. Bear in mind, however, that many male fields are also very traditional environments. Do not dress in revealing or overly sexy attire or you will risk damaging your credibility.
4. Learn the Male Lingo
An easy way to impress your male counterparts, and thereby increase their comfort level with you, is to show you have knowledge in typically-male subjects. The most obvious choice is to become well-versed in one or more of the major sports. Demonstrating that you are genuinely interested in and know something about your area’s sports teams will instantly give you an in with your coworkers.
Many typically-male industries have a strong tie to the military, and you may find the culture in your workplace studded with military lingo and mannerisms. Some women may be tempted to buck this system to show that the times and dynamics are changing. They may make a point to not use this language or to make light of it. This tactic is not advisable because it can seem disrespectful of your company’s history and tradition. If your industry often uses military time, the phonetic alphabet, and/or numerous acronyms, you will impress your coworkers and employer by learning and using this same nomenclature.
5. Handle Detractors with Class
Some men may find it amusing to intimidate or embarrass you with cat calls or lewd comments. The best response is to promptly and decisively shut these men down. Often, asking such men if their wives (or daughters) appreciate such comments will quickly end matters. Generally, saying this in front of their coworkers using a tone that is more sarcastic than preaching is the most effective approach. The other men present will often laugh with you, and will be impressed that you aren’t intimidated. Follow that up with a private word with the offender. If the man is truly a jerk, inform him that you won’t report him this time because you know he was just showing off for his friends. Make it clear, however, that you will report future behavior. After the incident, do not make mention of it again, and make a point to treat the offender the same as everyone else. In this way, you will show your coworkers that you can handle yourself in a mature manner, and are interested in working with and not against them.
You will likely find that, in time, most of the men with whom you work will come to see you as an extension of their wives, sisters, or daughters, and will enforce appropriate behavior from others. You should encourage this dynamic, and not damage your credibility by engaging in overly flirtatious or suggestive behavior and risk being the subject of gossip or malicious rumors.
Some coworkers may never warm to the idea of working with women, and will subtly or overtly make this obvious to you. With these individuals, the best response is to perform your job consistently well. There is no point in engaging in a debate with such a person, and no one can argue with results. You may never be able to win over your entire office or plant, but you can represent yourself and your gender to the best of your abilities. The rewards for you and future generations of working women will bear the fruit of your efforts.