How Women Can Survive in Male-Dominated Industries

How can women make themselves known as valuable employees in a male-dominated office or profession?

6 May 2010

How can women make themselves known as valuable employees in a male-dominated office or profession? Do men and women use body language differently? Can a woman afford to decline an assignment? These are just a few of the questions Roxanne Rivera addressed in her recent IEEE-USA-sponsored webinar, “Tips for How Women Can Succeed in Male-Dominated Professions,” co-sponsored by IEEE Women in Engineering.

A 22-year veteran of the construction industry and principal of her own company, Rivera is the author of There’s No Crying in Business: How Women Can Succeed in Male-Dominated Industries [Palgrave Macmillan, 2009].

For women in construction, engineering, and other male-dominated professions, standing out and making themselves known in the so-called good-old-boy network can be challenging, Rivera acknowledges. But in today’s tough economic times, standing out is more important than ever. The first step for a woman, Rivera says, is making her value known to her bosses and co-workers.

“Ultimately, your value to your organization is going to be based on providing a needed knowledge or skill that is in short supply,” Rivera says.

Developing a useful set of skills takes time and planning. First, a woman should identify the skills already in abundance in her organization and ones in short supply. Then she should make it her business to acquire those that are needed by taking workshops or college courses, entering apprenticeships, or researching things on her own.

Once she has acquired that special knowledge, she ought to communicate it to management and ask for a chance to demonstrate her proficiency. She should take on additional responsibilities, be vocal in meetings or wherever decisions are made, be prepared with answers so she is not left speechless, and be confident in expressing new business ideas. “Don’t be afraid to express your ideas,” Rivera advises women. “It shows you’re thinking about where your company is going.”

Once a woman has established a reputation for competence, it will be reflected in the respect of her peers as well as in her performance reviews, Rivera says.

Understanding the different ways in which men and women communicate can provide a female employee with leverage and make it easier for her to work with all her colleagues, Rivera says. For example, men tend to seek straightforward solutions to problems, she says, whereas women are more likely to delay getting to the point by telling a story first to establish intimacy and empathy for a situation.

Body language is important. Men tend to be more direct with that. They’ll check their watch and then wrap up a meeting because they want to go to lunch, or they’ll tap their feet if they do not get information quickly enough. Women express their listening skills by nodding, which is usually perceived as a sign of attentiveness.

Interrupting is frowned upon in the male world, according to Rivera. “Men feel when they’re interrupted that their authority is being challenged,” she says.

A woman who doesn’t consider herself a people person need not worry about it. Instead, Rivera says, she should focus on connecting with one or two people she is going to be working with often and zero in on common interests, then leverage those relationships to help build a position of strength.

Women have a problem saying no when asked to do more. They might feel guilty when they do so, Rivera says.

“One of the things you’ll learn when you start to say no is that you’ll earn the respect of your colleagues,” she says. “They'll see that you know what you have on your plate and what you can capably take on.”

How does one learn to say no? It’s important to set priorities. “Identify what really matters in your life, and focus on how to achieve it,” Rivera says. Next, create boundaries based on those priorities, but also decide whether you’re willing to make exceptions in situations that can benefit you.

And learn to delegate. “Women try to do everything themselves,” Rivera says. But delegating work to colleagues or subordinates doesn’t mean you’re trying to get out of work. It frees you up to do what you’re good at or what will help you achieve your goals. Explain why you’re delegating a task and what you expect out of it, then set a deadline and get out of the way.

“Don’t look over the person’s shoulder, don't micromanage, and express thanks when the assignment is complete,” she says.

She also advises women not to try to be perfect. “I estimate that at least 50 percent of highly successful women in male-dominated professions are perfectionists," Rivera says. “That’s a good thing, because attention to detail is important in any job. But lavishing all your attention on tiny details can prevent you from taking risks, and taking risks is what gets you ahead.”

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