HUMAN RESOURCES / FEB. 05, 2015
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7 Tips for Female Executives Working in Male Dominated Environments

Working in traditional male bastions, for example, science, technology, engineering or mathematics, can prove challenging for a woman. Not only because these are ultra-competitive environments, but also by virtue of being a woman. Here are some tips to help you minimise the challenges that will invariably arise.

#1 Act the Part - With Confidence

Remember that you were hired – over others - on account of your superior skills, knowledge or experience. So it’s important to behave like someone with the skills, knowledge and experience necessary to perform your role. Assuming you have the relevant qualifications, it is only your confidence, or lack thereof, that will prevent you from expressing yourself (good news: anyone can learn to be confident).
Learn to say ‘no’ whenever you need to because it will serve you well: your opinions and boundaries will be respected.

#2 Build rapport to create a positive connection

It’s essential to build rapport with your coworkers as early as possible; first impressions are everything.  Here are some tried-and-tested tips to help you build rapport:

  • Make sure your clothes don’t serve as a barrier: match their level of formality.
  • Seek out commonalities and build on them.
  • Recognise and respect their beliefs and values.
  • Mirror’ their body language and style of communication, including their language, speech patterns, vocal tone and volume. According to Mindtools, research by the US FBI has shown that mirroring is an effective means of building rapport.
  • Don’t be easily offended. You’ll probably be tested by your male coworkers to see to what extent they can be ‘themselves’. Remember that appearing unfazed by behaviours typically associated with male environments, e.g. liberal swearing and an emphatic absence of political correctness, when telling  jokes/stories, doesn’t mean you’re happy with this or that you have to join in.

#3 Man up

According to a (controversial) study by Michigan State University and reported in the Daily Mail, “masculine” qualities such as “assertiveness, independence and raw ambition” are more valued in male dominated environments than qualities typically associated with women, such as “warmth, supportiveness and a nurturing nature”. However, these “masculine” skills do not negate the need for using whichever attributes are needed to get the job done, and these may include those traditionally associated with women.

#4 Get a sponsor or a mentor

Ideally, find someone suitably senior who will be your advocate within the organisation and who will coach and guide you as you progress within the organisation. For the mentoring relationship to work well, there has to be ‘something in it’ for both parties. Finding a mentor will take time and the careful cultivation of internal networks, but it will be an excellent investment of your efforts.

#5 Build or find  a support network

Assuming you’re not the only woman working for the organisation, why not get a group of women together; one that exists to provide mutual support and encouragement? There may already be such a group, in which case, their support will be invaluable.

#6  Never stop learning

Aim to always be a step ahead of your coworkers in your area of speciality. This means an unwavering commitment to continuous learning. We live in an age of content, so finding ways to enhance your knowledge shouldn’t be difficult: blogs, conferences, webinars and seminars are just a few of the options you could consider.

#7 Play to your strengths

Play to your strengths, not your stereotype. If you’re not a ‘yes’ person, don’t give that impression of yourself. However, if you’re insightful and empathetic, play to these strengths.

These tips will help you effectively navigate the social complexities of your male-dominated environment. Above all, remember that you were hired because of what you can contribute; don’t let anything get in the way of that.

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