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
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 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'
And if I'd been a man would they have vetted me like that? Oh,
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.
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
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
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
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:
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
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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,
- 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
d. create your own female dress code
version of 'smart casual' that makes you, and all around you,
…"You'll be a man, my son."