I’m writing this post because I recently had a conversation with a client about how difficult it is to be a woman in a male dominated industry. She works in media and production which was also similar to my previous background. She was telling me about how she is constantly fighting to have her ideas heard at work but it always turns out that men are praised more than women. She mentioned that in a room full of men, if you are the only female, you might as well keep your mouth shut since they won’t listen to your ideas and they tend to only see you as a sex object. It’s a harsh reality in the workplace and I can totally relate. I’m not saying that this is always the case, but I’ve certainly witnessed similar situations where men hold the power and women are just seen as pretty faces. I’ve heard men say degrading and insulting things to women. It can make work very difficult. Fortunately, I have learned valuable lessons from a few powerful female colleagues in the past. I carry everything I’ve learned from them with me and it’s helped me throughout my career. After nearly 10 years of working in a male dominated industry, I’ve decided to share some wisdom on how to step out of the shadows and be a leader…even in a room full of men.
So it’s time to get real here. You have a vagina and he has a penis. Get over it. The only body part that matters in the workplace is your brain. So use it wisely and rise above the rest.
- Don’t flirt. Just don’t do it. Establish yourself as a working professional not as the fun flirty girl or office hottie. If you are an attractive woman, this is going to be difficult as men will be throwing themselves at you. So what does this mean? This means do not overdo it at happy hour with your coworkers. And for God’s sake, do not sleep around! I hate to say it, but the sexy secretary doesn’t exist in the real world. It’s called fantasy, gentlemen! Ladies, once you open the door to flirting and even sexual invitations, you have already set the stage for who you are in the workplace. You are telling men around you that it is okay for them to look at you as a sex object. Please don’t be THAT girl. People will take advantage of you. Don’t think for a second that flirting with the executives will help you get a promotion. It doesn’t work that way and it’s better to earn it with hard work than with your body. Not to mention, it can hurt your career and reputation. Believe it or not, there are men who did not take the sexual harassment training seriously! So it’s up to you to make the best impression so that people respect you. As for that quid pro quo bullshit? Forget it. Establish who you are. A strong woman with a brain.
- Don’t be afraid to share your ideas in a room full of men. So the guy sitting next to you in a meeting has a college degree and an impressive resume? Well, your college degree and experience is just as credible. If you have ideas to contribute, share them out loud! Meetings are opportunities for you to learn, build strong relationships and showcase your amazing ideas. If you are the only woman in the room, you need to overcome the fear of being rejected. I know it can be intimidating. You may get shot down a few times, but don’t give up. The worst thing you can do is give up. Keep fighting and work hard for what you want!
- Stand up for yourself. You know what’s sad? Every time a woman stands up for herself, she is automatically labeled a bitch. Since when did standing up for yourself become something bitchy? Well, we can save that discussion for another day but don’t let that prevent you from speaking up when someone tries to bring you down. Just know that there is a professional way to do this without being nasty. I had a hard time with this, but I’m glad I learned it quickly. I always looked much younger so people never took me seriously and thought they could say whatever they wanted to me. But the fact is I’m a lot older than I look and I deserve some respect. I couldn’t remain passive anymore. I had to speak up and you should too if the situation calls for it.
- STOP APOLOGIZING FOR THINGS THAT YOU SHOULDN’T BE APOLOGIZING FOR. I have this in bold caps because this was my biggest problem when I first started working!! My former coworker and I had a huge discussion about this. I kept starting sentences with “Sorry, I just have a question for you” or “Sorry, here is the presentation you asked for”. It’s an easy thing to do nowadays to add “sorry” to sentences. Then I realized that I shouldn’t be sorry for having a question and I shouldn’t be sorry about handing in a presentation (unless it was late which it never was). So you have to ask yourself, is there anything truly to be apologetic for? If not, then don’t say it. The truth is any woman who says “sorry” too much automatically establishes herself as a subordinate, which is something you do not want in the workplace. Strong leaders do not apologize for everything. They only apologize if there is truly something to apologize for. I know, it seems like a small detail but it makes a huge difference in how people perceive you. Trust me. If you want to remain as the pushover intern, go ahead and say “sorry” in every sentence. This small word makes you appear timid and weak. But if you want to be a leader and there isn’t anything to be sorry for, then stop saying it!
- Know your boundaries. Okay, so you and Joe Schmo have been spending late nights together in the office to meet deadlines and he’s warmed up to you. Now he is expecting you to disclose some personal information. Well, don’t. No matter how cool or welcoming he may seem, don’t spill about your recent breakup, marital problems, etc. Remember this is the workplace, not your therapy session. Because people are constantly competing with each other at work, you can’t risk someone using your personal life against you. The old saying of coworkers first, friends second remains true.
- Learn to say NO. This was the hardest lesson for me to learn especially because I worked as an assistant for many years and I wanted to prove that I was dependable and hardworking. However, the truth is by saying YES to everything, you are only hurting yourself and your performance. There’s an art to doing this and that is to communicate to your boss or coworker what you have on your plate. Your boss may not know how much work you have already, so it’s best to let him/her know. From my experience, most bosses will appreciate your honesty and help figure out a way to complete projects on time (may not always be the case but open communication is key). The last thing they want is for you to fail because that will make them look bad. Also, this shows them that you are someone who knows how to prioritize and communicate. As far as coworkers go, there’s a fine line in helping them without hurting your performance. You can’t be doing favors under the table all the time. It’s tricky, but you have to use good judgment. The bottom line is you can’t please everyone. If you think that you will appear as someone who is good at your job because you say YES all the time, you are wrong. You should be good at your job because you know when to say no.
- Be a team player. You probably think I’m tricking you right now because I just told you to say no, but there’s a balance here. Let’s be honest, everyone in the workplace is competing with each other. Sometimes people have your back, but most of the time, you need to watch your own. However, just because you are in a competitive environment, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be a team player. Most likely you are working on projects together, so you need to contribute. The key here is to not to let people take advantage of you. If you are always the person who is doing all the work, then you need to say something. Be wise and learn from your coworkers. Everyone has something to offer.
- Use your brain and not your cleavage to engage people. This sort of goes back to number 1, but it’s worth mentioning. Mixing business with pleasure is a deadly cocktail. Please don’t use your cleavage or offer sexual favors to win people over. If you want to engage people and have them listen to you, start with how you carry yourself. Maintain good posture, make eye contact and dress professionally. Take some extra time to make that sales presentation strong and solid to win your clients. Impress people with your knowledge. They always say that knowledge is power, but I think it’s only powerful if you know how to use it.
- Keep educating yourself on your industry and line of work. I can’t stress enough how important this is. The world is constantly changing so it is crucial to stay abreast of these trends. When I first started working, I thought that someone would show me the way and hold my hand. But it doesn’t work that way so you have to be proactive by taking classes or whatever it is you need to do to sharpen your skills and get ahead. Remember, the more educated you are, the more successful you will be. Also, people will take you more seriously, you will be credible and you will establish yourself as a leader.
- Be tough while maintaining a positive attitude. Do not go throwing around emotions in the workplace. There’s a time and a place to be emotional but work isn’t one of them. If you are having a bad day, don’t pass that negativity on to other people. You don’t want to appear weak. If some project at the moment seems impossible, use available resources to help you. Brainstorm for solutions and use logical reasoning instead of emotional excuses. You have to remain positive, smart and strong. It’s easier said than done, I know. For me, I usually focus on relying on my knowledge and less on emotions to solve problems.
- Don’t be afraid to talk to your boss. Stop putting your boss on a pedestal. Yes, you heard me. I know this sounds so silly, but you would be surprised at how many people feel like they can’t approach their boss because they are way up there and you are way down here. I’m guilty of it. One thing I’ve learned is that you have to level with your bosses and build healthy professional relationships with them. If you have an open relationship with your boss about your goals and performance, you will be a stronger professional and he/she can guide you to where you want to be. Moving up or asking for a promotion starts with a discussion. But you have to initiate that discussion first. Let it be the first discussion of many to help build your career.
Now I work in a female dominated industry which is a huge change but a lot of the above still applies. I hope that this helps empower women who feel like their voices are unheard in their line of work. It’s not to say that men don’t feel invisible and unappreciated in the workplace. I’m sure that happens more often than we know, but I just wanted to share my experience as a woman who has worked for many years with plenty of males. No matter what your work is or who you work with, just remember to always be respectful to the people around you.