When Shelley Washburn entered the job market in the late 1980s, she interviewed with a large auto manufacturer.
"I was naive and didn't consider that it was a male-dominated industry," says Washburn. (Today she is the president of GSM, a full-service marketing company specializing in omnichannel solutions for automotive partners.)
The eye-opener for Washburn came during her interview with her future boss.
"He commented that if he hired me, I shouldn't think I could just come in and bat my eyelashes and own the place!" Washburn recalls.
For Maureen Waters, a career in the male-dominated field of commercial real estate has had its hurdles. Waters has faced challenges along the way to becoming president of Ten-X Commercial, a transaction platform for online commercial real estate sales.
"Being in male-dominated industries can be difficult," says Waters. "Unfortunately, gender discrimination and misconduct are a part of commercial real estate, and I certainly have had my fair share of experiences."
Frequent Challenges? Being Ignored and Dismissed
Leah Kolben is the CTO and co-founder of cnvrg.io, a machine learning platform that helps manage and scale AI and data science. She believes women in male-dominated industries face quite a few challenges.
"As a woman entering any STEM career, there are endless barriers that we experience," says Kolben. "Perhaps it comes from being identified as a minority or being treated differently, but working in male-dominated industries takes its toll on your mental stamina and your character. The hardest part has been that as I get higher up in my career, I notice less women around me."
Victoria Hodgkins, CEO of PeopleKeep, a health reimbursement arrangements benefits automation software solution, describes these challenges as subtle, yet troubling.
"Most of the challenges I've faced as a woman in business have been more about small issues accumulating than any big, singular experience," says Hodgkins.
Early on in her career, Hodgkins found herself isolated.
"I'd attend a meeting where I'd be the only woman, and all of the pre-meeting conversation would be about college football, which I know nothing about," she says. "Even now as a CEO, people will occasionally underestimate me or be patronizing in a way that can feel gender-driven."
Emily Killian, president of sock retailer Sock City has had similar experiences.
"One of the biggest hurdles I've had to face has been the tendency of people, male or female, to defer to my male colleagues while conducting business," says Killian. "It's challenging to be seen as an authority figure when people's first assumption is that only men are in charge."
Finding the Courage to Speak Up and Break Down Gendered Walls
Many women business owners may find working in male-dominated industries trying, but the challenges make them better business people.
"As a woman business owner, I had to break down walls and struggle to have a voice and not be overlooked and talked over in meetings," says Waters. "This took patience, risk taking and courage to speak my mind, making me stronger, professionally and personally."
In fact, Waters found that being in one of the male-dominated industries motivated her even more.
"As one of the few female executives in the nascent commercial real estate industry, I have had—and continue to have—the opportunity to help shape its evolution by focusing on diversity and inclusion, which benefits everyone," says Waters.
There will always be critics or skeptics for whatever path you choose in male-dominated industries, so do what is right for you. Participate in something that interests and challenges you.
—Leah Kolben, CTO and co-founder, cnvrg.io
Today, Washburn is still often the only woman in the room during important meetings, but she has a different outlook.
"Earlier in my career, I would sit in the back of the room and let others sit at the table. I learned that I earned my seat at the table, and I'm no longer afraid to speak up."
7 Tips for Women Leaders in Male-Dominated Industries
While women have made inroads in these formerly men-only industries, there's still a lot of progress to be made. Are you in or interested in entering an industry dominated by men? Here are some tips from women who have been there, done that and are leading the charge.
1. Ignore statistics.
"Avoid anything that tells you you're an outlier," says Kolben. "Children do not naturally become interested in something because of their gender. Often, it's society that labels certain positions, activities or passions."
"Avoid holding yourself back. I don't think the fact that an industry or profession is male-dominated should have any bearing on a career decision. Nowadays, most companies appreciate diversity and what it can bring to the workplace."
2. Find a mentor.
"In moments of doubt, seek advice from mentors," suggests Clara Bullrich, a partner at the independent global investment firm Alvarium Investments. "Get close to someone who inspires you. With time, the person can become an instrumental figure in your career."
"My advice is to find a mentor early on—especially when working in male-dominated industries," she says. "I've been fortunate to have two significant mentors throughout my career, and they both helped me progress, professionally and personally."
3. Mentor and hire other women.
Also aim to pay it forward and advocate for other women, suggests Waters, who currently mentors four women in her industry.
"Women supporting one another can make the biggest difference," she says. This includes hiring women to work in male-dominated professions.
4. Work for yourself.
"I've found that as soon as you work for someone else, the risk of being suppressed increases," says Louise Clare Carter, founder of Phlebotomy Examiner, an education publishing business. "Being independent increases my ability to get jobs based on merit instead of what I look or sound like."
5. Follow your passion.
"There will always be critics or skeptics for whatever path you choose in male-dominated industries, so do what is right for you. Participate in something that interests and challenges you," says Kolben.
"Become an expert in who you are and what drives you," Bullrich adds. "Work on understanding yourself as you grow and evolve. Reaching that level of self-awareness will give you the tools needed to achieve anything you want."
6. Display confidence.
"I've noticed that women who work for me often lack confidence in their abilities," says Washburn. "Men are more likely than women to raise their hands for promotions. Women tend to feel they need to check every box on a job description, while men consider their ability to learn the job requirements. It's good for women to remember that their skills and leadership abilities are a key for advancement, not just prior experience."
7. Always be yourself.
"People recognize authenticity," says Washburn. "A boss years ago said I needed to be louder and more aggressive. I didn't agree with his assessment; however, I did consider what the feedback really meant. I started to speak up more, defend my positions and I made sure that more people knew about my successes."
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