I was just 19-years-old when I started my career in IT with a large, Australian national company. The company I worked for was about 90% male. On my first day on the job, I took a support phone call. I listened carefully to the issue this particular manager was having with his computer, getting ready to resolve it for him. He finished by telling me to let my boss know.
Right at that moment I knew what this guy had assumed about me. I was some young girl taking messages for my boss.
I told him, “That’s okay. I’ll fix it for you.”
Over the years I met and overcame many challenges as a young professional woman working in a male dominated company. The truth is I loved my 8 years working there. By the time I finished I was second in charge of the IT department, and managing the support team.
Here are my top strategies for not just surviving in a male dominated workplace, but thriving:
Concentrate on doing your job well. No one can argue with someone who is excellent at what they do. Let your work speak loudly for you.
Once I was project managing the IT and Comms for a branch opening. This wasn’t my first one, but the area manager of this new branch was very sceptical and distrustful about the outcome. He’d had a negative experience with the IT and Comms in his last branch opening (which I hadn’t managed), so I understood why he was stressing. I took his phone calls over the weeks leading up to the branch opening, patiently answered all his questions – even if they were repeated over and over. And I made sure every ‘i’ was dotted, every ‘t’ crossed, and that I’d done everything I could to make sure the IT and Comms would be operational for opening day.
This manager insisted I fly up for the opening, and I went, even though I really had no reason to be there. With great satisfaction I spent the opening day walking around the store with my hands behind my back. Everything went smoothly.
What happened after that? This manager trusted me completely. If I was on the task, he knew everything would be fine.
This may sound counterintuitive but think of it as a marathon and not a sprint. Conserve your energy. Don’t fight worthless battles. Keep your end-goal forefront in your mind and keep heading towards that.
Be you – feminine and all
Don’t feel like you have to fit in with the men. You aren’t a man. This doesn’t mean you have to be soft and sweet, but it also doesn’t mean you have greet others with pats on the back and swear like a sailor to fit in (unless you want to!). You have something unique, strong and incredibly valuable to give as a woman.
Be assertive – not aggressive
Speak up in meetings. Share your ideas. If you’ve done a great job at something – show your boss. Ask for a raise. Let them know why their idea isn’t going to work and explain why. Aggression shows insecurity. Assertiveness shows confidence.
Sometimes people really don’t mean to be mean, or insensitive. They don’t mean to “treat you like a woman”. Getting angry or defensive won’t help that – in fact, they’re more likely to respond to you with, “typical woman!”
I turned up at a branch once to install their new computer system. They assumed I was dropping it off, said thanks, and waved me off. They thought they’d be able to hook it all up themselves and transfer over the data? I stifled a laugh. “No, I’m here to install it.” Yes, the manager looked surprised. He smiled like he was amusing a little kid.
But I could see how it might look funny to him – crawling under computer benches, wielding a screw driver and hooking up computer systems. He’d probably never seen a female do that before and I could understand his reservation.
So I just rolled up my sleeves and got to work. By the end of it all, he waved a friendly goodbye to me as I left. He’d watched me closely as I’d worked, and I knew that he now realised he’d never have been able to do the installation himself, and he had a new respect for me. He was always great to work with after that.
Don’t make the coffee
Unless that’s part of your job description, just don’t do it. This actually went against my nature – raised by my Filipina mother, hospitality is ingrained in me. But making the tea and coffee isn’t going to help elevate your workmates view of you.
You can still be polite and welcoming without actually making the coffee. When I met with external consultants or visitors at our office, I would ask them if they’d like a tea or coffee, and then show them where they could make one – all with a genuine smile. No one that I can recall ever thought that rude, and I never compromised my professional position.
I must admit, I was blessed with an awesome boss who backed me up and encouraged me to speak up. He wanted to hear my ideas and had confidence in my abilities. The upper-management of this company was also very supportive. I know this isn’t everyone’s experience, and many women have to work in a lot more challenging environments.
My suggestions above probably won’t help with the truly masochistic and narcissistic male, but they’ll help you with the others. Quite often you just need a couple of the right people in your corner and they’ll make all the difference for you.
No, I never did fit into the boys club – and I didn’t want to. But I had their admiration and respect, and a very fulfilling work-life all while retaining my true identity.