4 lessons on keeping your swagger in a field that is all men
I entered the corporate manufacturing world as a bright-eyed, naïve, eager and friendly 20-year-old woman. I curled my hair, I smiled big at everyone I met, and I was enthusiastic to prove myself as a hardworking team member. I was in for a rude awakening.
I am a young woman in a male dominated field. When I say male dominated, I am talking about men everywhere. My superiors are all male, those I solve problems with are all male, and those I manage are all men. Hundreds of men, day in and day out for over nine hours a day. Take my word when I say it's enough to take down a woman.
As much as we want to believe equality is real and sexism is dead, it isn't. It is alive and pumping in workplaces all across the world, and because of gender bias, I often have to work twice as hard as a man in my position. Gaining respect is a challenge, being treated professionally is a challenge and being seen as an equal is a challenge.
Learning to cope with the setbacks has been hard. I went into jobs fully optimistic with thoughts of "this will be better," only to learn that gender bias is universal. Being a woman in her late 20s in an operations position is never going to work to my advantage. So, I had a few meltdowns, cried a few times in the bathroom, bought a shirt that says "FEMINIST" to wear on casual Fridays and pulled myself together.
I developed tools to deal with being a woman in a male dominated field. You can't change men, but you can change how certain situations make you feel. You can change your behavior to make more constructive conversations successful, and you can kick ass as a woman in a male dominated world.
1. Leave feelings out of it
When resolving conflict in the corporate world, it will usually work to your benefit to leave your feelings out of it. Instead of explaining how a situation made you or others feel, explain bluntly and clearly why it was a problem. "Ted, you broke company policy and it is your job as manager to uphold the values of this company. It can't happen again."
I always find it helpful to not discuss issues immediately after they happen but to allow for a little bit of a cool-down period. The men I work with expect me to be emotional and sensitive. It is important to recognize that misconception and prove it wrong, because while a man might be perceived as passionate when upset, a woman is seen as weak. Take a few minutes to cool down, write down your thoughts and talk things out after the flame of anger has dwindled.
2. Correct inappropriate issues immediately
I am not a fan of confrontation, and to be honest, I don't do well thinking on my feet when I am in a state of shock, which is the state I find myself in every time something unprofessional and inappropriate is said to me. I had a coworker recently tell me to put my "big girl panties on" and deal with a situation. I should have said a lot of things in response, but I couldn't. Instead, I said nothing. I was shocked into silence; I could only turn and walk away. I have to train myself now to respond quickly with, "That was an inappropriate comment, and I won't accept being talked to like that."
Another trap to avoid is allowing inappropriate comments to be made to you in an attempt to seem like "one of the guys." You aren't one of the guys. The second you allow for inappropriate comments to be made toward you, you are opening the doors for hundreds of more. You have to shut it down immediately and demand the respect that you deserve.
As women, we feel things — or I do, at least. This makes it hard for me, at times, to disconnect from certain situations. In a meeting recently, I was talking to a friend and I was explaining how a male coworker refused to support an initiative I was heading that would benefit the company. I explained to her that I felt he didn't like working with me, like he possibly felt I was too inexperienced to lead a project like this or was on a mission to discredit and embarrass me. My friend just looked at me and said bluntly, "Did you ever think that maybe he is just an asshole?"
That is what I needed to hear, and it put into perspective how wrapped up I get in my inability to disconnect sometimes. I was fully prepared to overthink this situation all the way home, through dinner with my family, through snuggling with my dogs and right into my warm bed. For what? Nothing. The ability to disconnect, to not take things personally and to think rationally about the men you work with is the best gift you could ever give yourself. Always disconnect.
This doesn't mean they win — it means you're smart enough to remove yourself from a bad situation. Some work environments are too immoral, and you should know when to walk out of the door. I once had a boss who, in front of my colleagues, told me to run out and get his milk for him because his cereal was dry. That was a helpless situation and one that I realized, after many other humiliating moments like this one, was never going to improve. So I quit.
I have never felt more empowered than I did on that day. You deserve to be treated with professionalism and respect, no matter what your gender. When the man who is supposed to be leading and guiding you sends you an email, cc'ing the entire team, asking if you can read (true story), it is time to go.
Even with these tips, some days will be ugly. As a woman, you have to fight harder, you have to sacrifice more, and you have to demand to be treated equally. It isn't impossible, but it is hard work. Use these tips to better your working relationships with men if you're in a male dominated field. Then sit back at your meetings, appreciating the fact you're one of the only women there, under 40, kicking ass.