14 August 2010

Working in a Male Dominated Environment

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

Here at Professionelle we've been developing materials for a seminar on this subject, drawing on research but also real life experiences. It turns out we have lots of passion around this topic! In the following op-ed piece, Sarah lets off some steam and shares war stories about her experiences in heavily male-dominated environments. We'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences too…

Is there any other sort of work environment? Not in my career in marketing and business consulting in the UK and Australasia.

And that's the nub of the problem. When these environments are all you know, how can you tell what's behind what you're experiencing? Is it your imagination? Is there, in fact, an issue with your performance? Surely it can't really all be because you pee in a different room?

Pinning issues on gender feels so melodramatic. It can even seem like a cop out and, what's more, it's pointless because no-one will ever admit it to your face. You're sunk before you start.

But sometimes there's no question that being female is the issue.

The vetting panel

Years ago I was working with a sizeable consulting team on an assignment for a forestry organisation. You could walk along miles of the office and factory floors and never find a woman who was in more than a lowly administrative role.

One work module was to run customer interviews, and that module fell to me. The client apparently had conniptions. Not only were the wretched consultants insisting on talking to customers (the very idea!) but they were going to send Sarah to do it.  What did they say to the consulting partner? "Get her in at the end of the next management meeting. We have to be sure whoever does this is up to talking business to our customers." The partner was mildly apologetic - but it was clear I was on my own with this one.

So there I was at the end of long day, the lone woman sitting at the King Arthur-style table, men on each side, being quizzed on what I'd say, how I'd handle questions, and what my experience in the industry was. I must have convinced them that it was my interviewing experience that counted, and that I had plenty of that. They still sent me out with a couple of minders. "Just to help with driving, and with the introductions." After so many years, I can't be sure, but somebody probably called me 'dear' too...

And if I'd been a man would they have vetted me like that? Oh, please.

Hard work

I never dwelt on this incident because I was too busy working insanely hard on a succession of mentally and physically demanding projects. Delivering unswervingly excellent results were the table stakes for remaining in the organisation.  I wouldn't say I worked harder than the men, but it was a fundamentally competitive environment and everyone knew of others (male and female) who had not made the grade. Up or out.  It was very masculine in that sense. I enjoy competition but I found the unremitting performance pressure very wearing, despite my strengths of perseverance, curiosity and critical thinking. To be honest, I think a lot of my male colleagues found it tedious, too.

Trusted advisors

One area that, in retrospect, I struggled with in the male-dominated workplace was the absence of female role-models who were located any closer than 2000 km. I also lacked a network of trusted women advisors outside the firm for perspective and support. I was the senior woman in a small office and it was up to me to trail blaze.  Nowadays there are fabulous resources online, like www.professionelle.co.nz (!), but when, for example, I was first pregnant in 1995 that simply wasn't the case.

If I can offer one piece of advice, especially to younger women reading this, it would be to build up your cadre of women advisors, both inside (if available) and outside your company. And make sure some of them are professionals like you, working in similar environments. Family members can be wonderfully supportive, but, depending on their careers and work background, they won't always understand the nature of large, complex organisations.  When times get tough, or you doubt yourself, your advisors can provide vital perspective, fresh ideas and inject a dose of much-needed confidence.


By the way, these trusted advisors are one of the huge values of networking. For you lawyers and accountants and consultants out there - most of you in very male-dominated environments if you're past the first rung of the ladder - don't think of networking as a slightly grubby sales generation tool. Think of it as a way to find wonderful professional women (and enlightened men) who can become trusted advisors you can call on. And to whom you can provide advice in return.

I'm going to say it: it's easier for men. They are in the majority, surrounded by people who can instinctively empathise with them and support them. Their natural networks are all around them in the organisation, so even if their work schedule is intense and their external connections limited, they still have an abundance of contacts that can grow informally into their trusted advisor group.

Informal is the operative word. I was long gone from one organisation before I realised that between the young men and the senior men there had been occasional coffees, casual lunches and leaning-on-your-office-wall chats about the young men's future of a kind that had never happened to me.  And hardworking though I was, I was always up for coffee, lunch and talk!

A Woman's Perspective

Of course, women can find valuable male advisors and mentors in their organisations - wisdom is not gender-linked - but there are some issues you'll want to talk to a woman about because she  will simply have far more relevant experiences.

How does she handle leadership of men and what has she found works? How would she respond to repeated veiled come-ons from a colleague? (Yes, they still happen. Give me full frontal any day, it's the sneaky ones that are the worst).  What advice does she have around the huge pregnancy/ breastfeeding/ child care area? What tradeoffs worked for her after her family arrived and which does she regret? I'll repeat, get that cadre of women about you, you're going to need them.

One Size Fits (unless you're a size 6)

Another little story, this one from a project at a steel mill. For the mill tour we had to listen to a safety briefing and kit up in special gear. Arc furnaces are the next closest thing to Hell, so it was spark-resistant coats and steel-capped boots all round. Except for me. I went through the ash, over the gratings, past the flames, in my black patent courts with two inch heels because they had nothing to fit.

It's symptomatic of the biggest issue for me as a woman in male-dominated environments. Everything is made to fit someone else. Not just shoe size, but the language, leisure interests, expectations, family structure. It's subliminal, though, almost unseen, like the proverbial nine-tenths of the iceberg. Sure, we can sigh at "he/his/him" language norms, we can roll our eyes at one more office lunch with no salad in sight, but we sound petty if we mention it. In A Woman's Place is in the Boardroom the authors provide a painful list of 'micro-inequities' - the little unfair actions that, singly, are not worth making a fuss about, but that add up to a frustrating and alienating environment for ambitious women. There's a lovely cartoon in the book which sums it up:


An Army

Under the micro-inequities, of course, lurk the truly macro ones. Many organisations we work in today were shaped in the first half of the last century.  They are predicated on notions of patriarchy and hierarchy. They presuppose a workforce that can readily devote all its time and energy to the firm because of the reliance on other people who are back home doing the very many other jobs necessary to keep the workforce fed, clothed, and organised. Really, it's just like an army, where the generals are men, the chain of command is inviolable and where there are nine people in support for every front line soldier...

But nobody acknowledges this! The 'war for talent' has not yet threatened the status quo enough to make those generals truly review the training and deployment of their troops.  The sense of urgency and the commitment to change remains largely lacking.

As long as that continues, the deeply rooted norms and expectations of 100% flexibility and 100% loyalty to the organisation will persist. Part time work requests will continue to be seen as a terminal lack of commitment (for women and men). Children will enhance a man's stature but diminish a woman's because she is assumed, often rightly, to be the fallback caregiver. And CEOs who believe they are offering flexible work will look on in puzzlement as educated, talented women in their mid 30's flow out of the door, never to return.

Making Peace

Ahem! I will climb down off my soap box to offer a final thought.  I absolutely do not advocate that women go through their professional lives looking for inequities or worrying there's discrimination going on behind closed doors. You'll exhaust yourself emotionally. Make your peace with the environment, or at least with the micro-inequities, and pick your battles carefully on the macro ones.  If there are enough good things about working in such organisations then make an explicit trade off and live with it, until it feels time to review it again.

Three Good Things

I've challenged myself now - what ARE three good things about working in male-dominated organisations? Here goes:

  1. They tend to be the largest organisations, the most highly resourced, and acknowledged as best-in-class. Career-wise, they are where you want to be.
  2. They are a good place to find a husband.  I know I did, and I'm sure a lot of you reading this met your man at work, too!
  3. Lastly, as a woman, you stick out like a sore thumb. Now, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling's "IF"… If you can:

a. figure out how to turn that prominence to your advantage while staying true to yourself

b. find a way to take the best of the men's way of doing things while not turning into a man

c. cope with being a magnet for female tasks like minute-taking yet say "no" effectively and respectfully

d. create your own female dress code version of 'smart casual' that makes you, and all around you, comfortable

Well then…

…"You'll be a man, my son."

Comments (18)

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  • Thursday, 19 August 2010, 09:25a.m. by Angelique Jurd

    “Surrounding yourself with women mentors and role models is one of the best pieces of advice I've ever had. Women know how hard it is to break through the 'boys barriers' so tend to be really supportive and have advise that is actually useful. Not that men aren't capable of that - simply that they rarely seem to offer it.
    The worst case I've had was as an Ag reporter when I turned up to do an interview at a milk factory in the Waikato and the CEO blinked and said "but you're a girl". I still have no idea why that a) surprised him (my name is hardly a guy's name), b) was cause for much stuttering and blustering, and c) what possibly difference it could make.

  • Thursday, 19 August 2010, 01:36p.m. by Sarah

    “You made me laugh, Angel! And you reminded me of the time I was doing yet more interviews - 8 months' pregnant. I full-sailed into a series of plastic packaging manufacturers, located deep in industrial estates, and half the male interviewees looked very antsy throughout, as if afraid I was going to go into labour before their very eyes!

  • Thursday, 19 August 2010, 06:20p.m. by Pam

    “Great topic, I have worked in the banking field for over 20 years; there were many times when I first started that I was the only female, or there were two of us. I am sure I made lots of mistakes and there were more boys networks in the old days, someone got a job and they did a job swap and you didn't even know the job was free and it was always blokes doing this. The worst one was I had a male customer who refused to shake my hand as I was a female (maybe he was worried about women bugs :)), and I also had male colleagues who refused to congratulate me when I got a well deserved promotion at work and I always felt more pressure to perform. It was hard work sometimes. There was always the subtle things like in presentations suddenly there would be a half naked man and always a comment that that was for Pam - all done in gest and funny and hard to complain about it - it was a subtle way of saying you are different to us. Once I got to management I had a boss who really did go out of his way to discredit me, and was kind of nervous around me - not sure why, it was tough and deliberate and he often tried to exclude me from management lunches etc, my way around it was his PA - don't ever underestimate the power of the CEO's PA and women soladarity - she was great and always made sure I was on the invite list and included in meetings. Definitely the role model one is great, but sometimes hard to find; I am in a office with only men in management at the moment; but I have some great outside contacts which are helping me not loose my mind. I've just started a new job and got to prove myself as the women who isn't a pushover but is still nice and part of the team. Always wonder how women dodge the bullet when organising functions; when the office doesn't have a PA it always seems to be the ladies who get stuck with this one. How do you say no, without being disrespectful I wonder. I think some of it is in our introductory by lines too; I know I don't always say I've done this and this is my background and probably downplay my experience when meeting a new team; guys don't suffer from this and I don't know why I do!”

  • Friday, 20 August 2010, 07:20a.m. by Sharon Manssen

    “I love this topic! I have so many things I want to comment on, but I will try an limit myself. I am an environmental engineer in a large engineering / professional services consultancy. I have 2 primary-school aged children. My employer has recognised that we have a huge problem in retaining technical females, and has launched an internal female networking initiative, which I am heavily involved with. This has linked the few women in our office with those all over the country. I have also negotiated flexible work-hours - I work full-time, but 6.30am til 3pm. Last year I was made redundant, but at the same time offered another position as the region quality coordinator. A year down the track, I have realized that I will most likely never return to "proper" engineering, and am thinking about discontinuing my professional membership with IPENZ. I feel like I have failed, as I so wanted to be one of the females that "made it" against the odds, but I love what I'm doing, it is so much less stressful than the client-driven pressures of consultancy. I guess I am doubting whether I am a good role model for those younger female engineers who have their careers and future families before them?”

  • Friday, 20 August 2010, 09:00a.m. by Galia

    “What wonderful comments! I love them. My own personal reflections on the topic are that first, we, women, need to give ourselves the permission to be human - and follow our own definition of success, not other people's. The thing is, when we follow others' definition of success, the goal posts keep moving. So Sharon, I think you are a role model, because you crafted a path that works for you. Part of being human is changing our minds and being flexible about our careers. Hey I should know, I started out as a developmental psychologist doing research on early intervention... The other big lesson I learned in my career is that no one just gives you control over your professional life or respects you just because of your title - I had to learn how to if you like 'command' it. I just read this great article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marcia-reynolds/smart-strong-women-teach_b_674456.html highly recommend it, with some great tips!”

  • Friday, 27 August 2010, 05:16p.m. by Claire van der Most

    “What great reading for a Friday avo. I was amazed that not long ago, I have been asked (on numerous individual occasions) by a colleague, "When are you leaving to have a baby?" Having worked in the UK for 10 years and only been back in NZ for two years, I must admit I was shocked that this mentality is still in NZ, when NZ was the first country in the world to give women the vote! That said, I'm not one to sit back and "take it", and I fully agree with Galia in terms of "commanding" respect; and whilst that does take time, it is worth it. ”

  • Wednesday, 01 September 2010, 08:24a.m. by Hazel Jennings

    “A great shot in the arm Sarah. And those micro-inequities are so telling!

    My children are all but independent now (one at varsity, one driving himself to school) and it's interesting to see a ghost of something I encountered years ago in the UK. There, when telling my boss that I was booking my second maternity leave I was told something like "good - once that's over and done with you can get on with your career!" Now I have a number of "kind" male peers "encouraging" me with comments about how good it must be for my job prospects now I don't ahve to worry about the kids......some things change slowly....”

  • Monday, 06 September 2010, 04:23p.m. by Katy Marriott

    “I've just read Sharon's comments and want to tell her she is not a failure! I am a professional Civil Engineer and regularly pay my IPENZ subs every year because I never got round to doing the CPEng qualification but I am MIPENZ (I was a Registered Engineer). The last roading project I designed was in the 1990's and the last construction I supervised was in 2000 (I did site visits on my way home from picking up my sons from school - I bribed them with dairy money while I inspected the site! The job before that I completed in time to have my third baby two weeks later). I still think of myself as a "proper" engineer because I have "been there, done that" as far as engineering goes. I have now "moved on" to higher things, just like you have. Many of my male peers (I will admit to being lateish mid 40's) freely admit to being unable to design or construct anything now because its been years since they last had to. I have taken the same attitude. What I find helpful is that I still attend technical meetings of IPENZ just to keep in contact with what is happening and for interest. I suggest you emphasise the "regional" bit of your job title and start thinking of yourself as having succeeded as an engineer and have now moved on to use your technical skills in a wider context. Engineering at its heart is the art of problem solving and you will be subconsciously using your engineering skills in a number of ways every day. There is no way you are a failure!”

  • Sunday, 10 October 2010, 02:49p.m. by Sarah

    “I've just been sent this article by a long time Professionelle member. It's an enjoyable piece about male vs female wiring and how it translates into the rules in male-dominated workplaces. The discussion that follows in the comments is a really good one with references to some great resources.

  • Friday, 05 November 2010, 07:14p.m. by Sarah

    “I presented an in-house networking seminar on this subject today. It was great to have men in the room to lend their perspective (and perhaps one of them will add his comments on the site)!

    It was also great to learn that the steel mill that had had no safety boots in a woman's size for me all those years ago is now being run by a woman. We agreed the boots probably come in sizes to fit everyone now. Progress!!”

  • Friday, 26 November 2010, 11:08p.m. by Sigfrid

    “Hello, I am one of the men who attended the in-house networking seminar on the 5 November. Please let me write a few lines in this female dominated environment with my best Frenglish (I come from the country of the smelly cheese, sorry), and hopefully, you won’t fall asleep on your keyboard before the end of the message.

    I heard, during some discussions, several problems that my female colleagues were facing and had difficulties to cope with. I would say that most of them are not “female related” as I also had similar bad experiences with male colleagues, usually above me in the hierarchy.

    A CAD Drafter felt that she was given crazy deadlines and/or was not really considered as a person. Having previously been a technician in an engineering world, I’ve very often been frustrated when taken for the “maid” of the company. This gave me enough anger to pass an engineering degree in English and be at equivalent level than the arrogant people.

    I cannot remember all the examples that with discussed and we surely could find thousands of them; however, I would say that a recurrent problem in the debate comes from the lack of self-confidence that a lot of women experience at work or outside work, being impressed by someone tall and/or with a dark suit and/or a deep voice and/or who knows what again.
    Don’t expect a solution to the problems from me, I’m just a man! Anyway, one thing I realized is that everybody, male or female, should be sure of and improve his strengths and stop being focussed on his weaknesses. Be strong on your position, be sure of what you know and don’t hesitate to face anybody who does not respect you, should this person be your manager, Bill Gates or Prince Charles.

    I often read that not a lot a women reach the high spheres. My personal vision is that the men are not cleverer than women but the whole system has unfortunately been designed by men for men. Let’s say that the work life is a river. The women will have to swim hard and to be strong to progress; a lot of you will give up, whereas the men will only have to let the current carrying them. Even the most hopeless man will manage, with a bit of luck, to access the nice areas. So just fix your target and don’t give up.

    Now, what I’m confident of is that women have the strength to be what they are. For a similar confrontation with a man, you will leave victorious whereas a man won’t hesitate to go to the clash with another man. I call this the fear of the feminine gender, explaining why so many women are left for less-than-nothing all around the (macho) world, just to not let them gaining uncontrolled power. France, the “romantic” country, refer to the women as the weak sex (sexe faible), contrasting with the “strong sex” (sexe fort) for us, the men. No comment.

    Well, I really hope that you weren’t too bored, reading my prose and just to finish, for those of you who gave birth, never forget that if the men could be pregnant, most of us would not even show up on the D-Day.


  • Saturday, 04 December 2010, 12:06p.m. by Sarah

    “Sigfrid, thank you not only for attending the inhouse seminar we ran, but also for commenting here. Great to have a diversity of voices!

    I did like your analogy about the river, and I think it goes to the heart of the issue. The career trajectories, and the effort required to sustain oneself, are different between the genders in an environment where one gender is the 'norm'. Another analogy I have heard is of men and women climbing onto buses at the start of their careers; the men's is the Express Service, the women's the Local Stopping Service... (but the signs are on the outside of the buses, and the women have little notion of what theirs says).

    I am sure you are right that men get treated with carelessness too. And I suspect, though I can't prove it, that organisations where more women reach senior levels will be ones where the culture encourages more considerate treatment of everyone.

    The ultimate 'cure' is in that last sentence above ie shifting the culture by becoming more aware of the biases, mental scripts and unspoken assumptions we carry. But that takes deep commitment and sustained effort. So meanwhile, we focus on the interventions that women can do for themselves - networking, mentoring, focusing on strengths, setting boundaries...

    A bientot! ”

  • Monday, 20 December 2010, 02:03p.m. by Hazel Owen

    “It is a complex subject, and I have really enjoyed the open and honest discussion (as a new member here). But let me describe first a couple of things that preceded me typing this message (and I have my own business so feel that 'politics' / one's presence online is a huge influence):
    1) I read the superb article (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marcia-reynolds/smart-strong-women-teach_b_674456.html) that was posted above...and then made the decision now to tweet the link. I'm now really reflecting on why I made that decision.
    2) I deleted my surname from this comment (before reinstating it) because I was concerned about what 'folk' might think if I took part in a discussion around gender issues in business.

    For me, the frequently negative reaction when gender is mentioned is enough to make me very cautious, and I also think that Sigfrid has a good point when he says: "I would say that most of them are not “female related”. Part of me resists saying that it is to do with gender, but rather it is a flawed business model that dehumanises many of its employees (male or female), puts them under incredible stress, and totally disrupts work/life balance.

    Perhaps it is reform of the 20th century business model needs to be challenged...a building momentum fuelled by business folk such as Ricardo Semler (Semco - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ricardo_Semler), and the focus on a much more flat-structure / empowerment (e.g. Google) - often fostered by the freeing up of communication, collaboration, networking etc facilitated by Web 2.0 (the concepts as much as the tools).

    Thanks for reading the rant - would be interested to hear what other folk think? :-)”

  • Thursday, 24 May 2012, 10:47a.m. by Frances Denz

    “I was interested in your comments about having a female mentor, and while I absolutely agree that they are essential, I have also found that having a male mentor invaluable.
    Let me explain!
    I have lived alone for most of my adult life - only seven years of marriage a very long time ago! I have spent most of my time in female environments as many of my own businesses were staffed by women.
    However my current business partner is very much a male, with a strong male response to life, which frequently surprises me! Most boards I have been on have been all male except me. My business partner and I were both on a major board together (not our own), and I was always surprised when he winced at some of my comments. And when we got back to the office he would tell me how I could have reframed it to make it more acceptable to the other guys.
    I wasn't sure whether his advice was good or not, or whether he was just being sexist but I had to concede he got better results than me. I therefore decided that I needed a second opinion to guide me.
    I found an older man who I respected, was honest and thoughtful, and a very experienced director. As an older man he does revert to type very easily, but I found that he had the ability to assist me in identifying what I was doing at the board table that stopped the guys listening to me, and therefore losing the battle before I even produced all my arguments.
    He would coach me in ways I could say the same thing without losing my own sense of self, but acceptable to the guys. I realise that the all female world I live in is actually counterproductive when considering the communication skills required at the board table. Communication is both sending and receiving information - and both are equally important.

    I am not going to get precious about it - if I want to be a useful thoughtful productive board member I have to learn to communicate in an acceptable way. This can be challenging as we are communicating using our own experiences in life - and of course those are female! ”

  • Tuesday, 26 February 2013, 10:30a.m. by Fran Rowe

    I found your comment relating to the identification of what you were doing at the board table that stopped the guys listening to you, and therefore (you were) losing the battle before you even produced all the arguments reflected a familiar experience. Can you provide an example of how you could say the same thing in an acceptable way or the principles to follow to achieve this change ?”

  • Friday, 10 May 2013, 03:28p.m. by Viv

    “I've worked in the IT Industry for nearly 20 years now, and in the paper industry before that. I am still one of the few women in the technical consultancy field. I've been assumed to be the 'secretary' plenty of times, but that mistake is quickly cleared up. Job performance always wins out.

    I find the sales women who sit on clients knees or women who still play the 'crying' card far more annoying than anything I've encountered from most men. Similarly I was finding the article quite interesting until it too hit the woman stereotype button with the cartoon and "we can roll our eyes at one more office lunch with no salad in sight".

    I like a pint, while many of my male workmates prefer wine or soft drinks, and indeed are vegans, vegetarians or more health conscious these days. I hate the stereotype that women are frail things that nibble only on salads, and wouldn't be so stupid to turn up to a steel mill tour in high heels! You may not have steel caps in your closet but you could at least have assumed that sensible shoes may be required and anyone can take a couple of pairs of thick socks in their handbag. Many environments only have a limited set of gear for visitors. A man of slight build or very large build would be in exactly the same position..

    Surely the whole point is that we bring our brains and different experiences and thinking paradigms to the table - that sometimes includes adjusting to the physical requirements of a job. ”

  • Saturday, 11 May 2013, 02:35p.m. by SarahWS

    “Viv, thank you for your comment. You're right, of course, that some women like pints and some men like chickpea salad. It reminds me that half the battle is to give men the room to behave and be who they are ie more than the stereotypes that constrain them. I believe acceptable work/life choices are more constrained for men than for women.

    As to the steel mill footwear, these days when a factory tour looms, I do indeed plan ahead better! But the key point is that safety gear was mandatory and there was none in women's sizes because the environment was only slowly being retrofitted to include women.”

  • Friday, 28 June 2013, 10:03a.m. by Jan Workman

    “Work hard, strategize, earn respect and get to a position where you can challenge the old mindsets. Being a female in a corporate environment is challenging - two of the more inane comments I have encountered over the past few years by two male counterparts are "just bring your pretty face along to the meeting" pretty comical considering I had set up the meeting; and the most recent "have you always been such a B...." when we were competing for business. Genuine apologies were received shortly after those comments. Their throwaway lines outline the fustration they often have in dealing with females in business.

    My advice - do not tolerate bad behaviour - don't take issue immediately - give a short window of time for the offender to come to their senses, as often they do. If not, do raise it on a one on one discussion the next day and I am sure they will think twice about using that line for the future.

    Don't be a wall flower - don't take it personally and more importantly just realize not all males are disrespectful - they have mothers, partners and children.

    Educate those that need it and raise the flag for yourself and for those that follow.”

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