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Blog March 8, 2019

Women Who Succeed in Male-Dominated Fields

Kate Zinsky

Right now, women are sweeping into fields historically dominated by men. Research backs that up; our numbers are continuing to grow and show no signs of slowing down.

As a result of breaking through glass ceilings, though, women are left with the difficult task of navigating that broken glass in a new cultural landscape. Initially, many women may feel like they have to choose between altering themselves completely to become “one of the guys” or risk exclusion from critical business and growth opportunities.

But, those who have been successful have learned that empowerment doesn’t come from changing who we are. What does empower us is when we embrace our unique gifts and strengths, while pushing ourselves into places that might seem uncomfortable at first, but, ultimately, let us contribute the most. I’ve noticed five critical actions that make us successful.

When women take initiative to command a room

At a previous job, I saw men unsure of whether to shake my hand at the beginning of a meeting when I was the only woman in the room. Some people may see that as disrespectful, while others might see it more for what it probably was – confusion.

After all, until beginning their professional lives, most men aren’t taught to shake hands with women inside their family, let alone outside of their family. It doesn’t become the norm until their work life begins, and even then, it’s still something that must be learned. In those moments where confusion is high, we can command the room by:

  • Taking the lead in meetings when our knowledge and experience positions us well
  • Asking pointed questions
  • And, yes, initiating the handshake

When women embrace who they are and know their value

It’s still common for the only woman in a meeting full of men to be asked to take notes. Why? It could be an unconscious bias, or it could be seemingly harmless – we’ve all probably seen women volunteered because they had neater handwriting or had seriously good note-taking skills. But in the moment, I’ve watched bright business women decline the role because they clearly understood their value and purpose for being there. They knew they intended to actively participate, and it would better serve the group for someone else to take notes.

Understanding our roles, our skills, and what we bring to the table is critical. Communicating our importance to the organization is just as important. Many of us want to create peace in the workplace, which means it can be easy to be unsure when asserting ourselves. Some men may not even think we’re assertive enough if we don’t make unwavering demands. But everyone benefits from knowing that confidence and success do not equal arrogance – and we owe it to ourselves and our company to be confident in our value.

When women leave apologies at the door and owning their strengths

Growing up, many of us unconsciously learned to downplay our talents because we thought we had to make others feel comfortable. We are so used to saying, “I’m sorry,” even when we’ve done nothing to warrant an apology.

In business, successful women have learned how to present with strength, advocate for themselves, and ask for what they’ve earned. The qualities of the best leaders are gender-neutral and involve characteristics like passion, consistency, and authenticity. When we evoke these qualities, we are truthful to who we are, and we shouldn’t apologize for it.

When women acknowledge their fears and overcome them

Studies have shown that women are more prone to avoid taking risks than their male counterparts, and doing so in a male-dominated workforce can seem even more challenging for the risk-averse. But, we don’t have to take giant leaps to make an impact in areas like business development or sales.

We can succeed based on our high adaptability, capacity to learn fast, and our innate ability to build relationships. Whether we’re putting ourselves out there with high-visibility opportunities or in one-on-one meetings, we need to know that we are built to succeed when we embrace each challenge. It’s important to put ourselves out there regardless of whether it makes us uncomfortable. It’s a truly freeing experience when we realize that the worst that can happen is rarely a doomsday scenario and often more of a minor setback.

When women charge ahead despite hurdles that might arise

We don’t have to be “like the guys” to succeed in what has historically been their line of work. We don’t have to break out the whisky and cigars (unless we want to) and join an old boys’ club. We need to pursue our passion wherever it leads, even if it means doing something few women have done before. Embrace the best aspects of ourselves, and when we hit a roadblock, maybe read something inspiring or talk to someone trusted to help put some of those learned behaviors to rest.

Ultimately, I’m glad there are so many women (in growing numbers) taking action to change the balance of the workplace. They are paving the way so that future generations of women don’t have to work so hard at it. To all of you out there, thank you.