How to Enter a Male-Dominated Industry As a Woman

Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

“It’s a man’s world.” If I only had a penny for the many times I hear that phrase.

But I don’t despair. I let Marilyn Monroe inspire me with her wit: “I don’t mind living in a man’s world as long as I can be a woman in it.”

And that quote embodies how I choose to lead my life as a Civil Engineer and a woman working in a male-dominated industry. I firmly believe that to be successful we have to be true to ourselves.

It is popularly acknowledged that persons of any gender or sexual orientation can do most jobs. I’m hard-pressed to think of any careers that explicitly require a penis or a vagina to do the work.

Yet the numbers don’t lie.

Women make up more than half of the United States population, yet are only 24% of engineers and scientists, 2.6% of construction workers, and 13.2% of police officers.

Only 11% of U.S. tech start-ups have female founders or CEOs, and of the Fortune 500 CEOs, only 20 are women.

And all those jokes about telling women to get back in the kitchen are just that, jokes – only 13% of executive chefs in the United States are women, and they earn 24% less than their male counterparts.

Before I get you all thoroughly depressed with those statistics, let’s also remember that women still earn $0.77 for every dollar earned by men. That’s a 23% difference in earnings!

I don’t know about you, but I am tired of seeing high-paying and innovative careers become de facto “boys clubs.”

Gender biases and negative attitudes toward women make it difficult for us to break into male-dominated fields. And sometimes our fear of living up to gender stereotypes makes it difficult to see ourselves being successful where it seems like we don’t belong.

At the age of 18, I worked in a construction site, and now I work as a professional engineer. Both jobs have taught me that breaking into a male-dominated field is not impossible, but staying in it is the real challenge

1. Beware of Stereotypes

There’s a misconception that some careers are overwhelming male because men are just more interested in these particular fields.

We’ve all heard that men are better at directing movies because they are more vocal. Or that men make better scientists because they are better at math.

These are all stereotypes. And we may know that, but your co-workers might still hold these stereotypes against you.

When I first started working as an engineer, everyone assumed I was my boss’ assistant.

I would get his mail delivered to my desk, and people would ask me about his schedule and whereabouts. Sometimes I would get calls to set up meetings, not by preparing so I can discuss my projects, but by booking a conference room and ordering lunch.

I let this behavior go on for far too long, and when I finally had the guts to speak up about being treated like a second fiddle, it seemed out of character and rude.

As a woman in a male-dominated field, you have to be prepared to assert yourself at all times.

There is nothing wrong with being helpful and taking on tasks that may not relate to your work, but if it becomes a habit, you will be passed along for promotions and raises, so learn how to be assertive.

The men you work with might not be consciously trying to make you feel like their assistant, but women are often portrayed as the helpers, and sometimes we willingly take that role upon ourselves.

I am ashamed to say that I have done a Michelle Bachmann and poured a glass of water for all the men around a conference room table. And while I was busy pouring everyone a drink, they were using that time to network.

2. Network and Join Professional Organizations

I am a fairly friendly person, but when it came to professional networking, I was a complete failure.

I tend to connect with people who I like or have interests in common with, but networking is about looking for people who will help you professionally.

Bonding over a favorite TV show or office gossip might garner you new friends – and you should be making friends! – but these relationships are intuitive, not strategic. Focus on meeting individuals that are on a career path you are interested in.

Now, this seems easy, but trust me on this one, it can be really difficult to break into a network.

My male coworkers have golf outings, and this is where they meet other men from different firms and discuss job openings and available opportunities. Unfortunately, I am never invited to golf outings. And I don’t know how to play golf, so I can’t even invite myself.

Because I couldn’t join their network, I joined professional organizations.

Networks that are formed in professional organizations, unlike a network of friends and co-workers, are what I like to call “open networks.” The possibilities of connections are endless because the members come from various walks of life, firms, and professions.

Start practicing how to approach people and make connections while still in college. Join student organizations and become an active member. They are great places to learn about the industry you wish to enter.

If you feel that these organizations are not as inclusive of women as you’d like, try to find women’s organizations – or start one yourself.

3. Practice Being Vocal

I’m not always successful at speaking up for myself, but when I do speak up, I never regret it.

Women’s voices are rarely exalted, which makes us feel like we’re invisible. And oftentimes, the only place where women feel free to express themselves is in groups of other women.

If speaking up in our daily lives can be intimidating, this is exacerbated in a male-dominated field.

I am quite chatty, but I have a tendency to avoid being seen as a complainer for fear that my working environment will become tense and uncomfortable.

The best way to get over the fear of speaking up is to be prepared and be confident.

I make a list of things my company and my boss are doing that make me feel inclusive and important, and another list of what I’d like to see improved.

Use specific examples such as “I like that I have been given more responsibility lately, but I’d like the opportunity to lead meetings or take charge over an upcoming presentation.” And when the opportunity comes, remind you superiors that you requested to be given more responsibility.

4. Get a Mentor

This one is tricky, because the whole reason I’m writing this is because there aren’t enough women in male-dominated industries, but you have to be creative.

Ideally, mentors are people with whom we share something in common.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have a female professor that will inspire you and perhaps be willing to offer you advice and support as you choose a career, but this isn’t always the case.

When I was studying Engineering, I only had two female professors in four years. And while they were very helpful, they were also not capable of giving individual attention to all of their students. So I went online to find a mentor.

A website called MentorNET allows you to find mentors in STEM fields, even while you’re still in school.

LinkedIn is another great service to reach out to people who are in similar career fields.

But eventually, I recommend reaching out to people who just inspire you, even if they aren’t in your career field.

Widen your search and be open to learning from individuals that have experience. Mentoring doesn’t have to be about a business connection.

If you find no one you can relate to, aspire to be a role model for a woman like you someday.

We are often told that women are just sentimental and don’t have the skills required to succeed in male-dominated fields.

But the truth is that many women feel that they will not be successful in these fields because they lack encouragement.

Surround yourself with people who will uplift you and believe in you.

But most of all, believe in yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to act modest – go on, toot your own horn.

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Patricia Valoy is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a Civil Engineer, feminist blogger, and STEM activist living in New York City. She writes about feminist and STEM issues from the perspective of a Latina and a woman in engineering. You can read more of her writings on her blog Womanisms, or follow her on Twitter @besito86. Read her articles here and book her for speaking engagements here.