I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with a female executive over the past six months – a rare treat. She’s someone who’s done incredibly well in a very ‘blokey’ industry. I’m so impressed by her ability to handle difficult situations with heavy-hitting managers at all levels. What I love most about this woman is that she’s always truly herself in all interactions. She makes no apologies, calls things out as she sees them and has a great sense of humour. Let’s call her ‘Amy’.
There was an incident at work recently. One of the senior male managers wanted something off the printer for a meeting. He was surrounded by five other male managers at the time – as well as Amy and I. Nothing unusual about that. The interesting thing was that he asked Amy to pick up his print-outs. He curtly bellowed out: “Amy, can you get that off the printer for me?” She had nothing to do with this meeting and wasn’t anywhere near the printer. It was clear to me that he’d assumed she was the best person for that particular job – because she was a woman. Amy knew too. Guess what she yelled back? “No, Dean, I’m in the middle of something. You gave your slave the day off, did you?” Everyone cracked up. Even Dean laughed. Her response was a funny and direct way of letting him know his request was unreasonable. Without being overly confrontational about it, she let him know we weren’t there to be at anyone’s beck and call. Isn’t that brilliant?
The fact is that gender stereotypes are still alive and well in the workplace. Having been a female professional in male-dominated industries for nearly 20 years, I’ve learned a few things about surviving and thriving when you’re in the minority.
Here are my 7 most effective tips for how to deal:
1. Speak up
Make sure you verbalise what you want to work on. I guarantee that your male counterparts are having corridor chats with the boss or discussing where they want to go in their careers over a beer or coffee. Make sure you make it clear what you want to be working on and how your manager can support you. In Australia in particular, informal catch-ups are often the best way to get your voice heard. Make your ambitions known. Don’t wait to be asked.
2. Have a sense of humour
As Amy demonstrated, part of the ‘boys’ club’ culture is not to take anything too seriously, even ourselves. I’ve seen Amy and other great women use humour to their advantage, particularly when awkward or potentially tense gender-stereotyped scenarios play out in the office. It’s important to set your boundaries and doing it with humour is one of the best ways to get your message across without damaging working relationships.
3. Refuse to be the ‘getter’
A common gender stereotype I see played is when the women in the office are asked to get the coffees, the lunches or even the dry-cleaning. Remember, that’s not what you’re there for. Sure it’s OK every now and then to check in with the team if they want something when you’re doing a coffee run, but don’t make it a habit. If the guys around the office aren’t doing it, then you shouldn’t be doing it either.
4. Find a Mentor
Getting someone on board who’s got your back is a must. It’s important to find someone senior to sponsor you and promote you within the organisation. They can also help you get promoted and secure a seat at key decision-making tables. Develop relationships with senior leaders and people who believe in you. This will help you be seen and heard more at the top end of town.
5. Work with your strengths
One of the best ways we can thrive in any environment is to get clear on what we’re good at. If you have any doubts about where your abilities lie, ask peers, friends, family or a trusted mentor where you really shine. Build your skills and make people aware of what your strengths are. It’s a sign of any great leader. Putting your best qualities out there is how you build a strong profile in the workplace.
6. Learn how to say no
There is a way to say no and push back with professionalism. It’s easy to want to do it all and take on too much, but then you’re spread too thin and not doing your best in any area. This is a particular challenge for woman because societal norms suggest that we should be able to ‘do it all’. All the strong leaders I’ve seen in the workplace have been able to clearly and confidently say no when they’re asked to do too much. I assure you my male colleagues and leaders do it regularly. It’s liberating and necessary.
7. Be Social
It’s no secret that some of the best opportunities in our careers come from casual interactions outside of the office. To be honest, I’m not a drinker, but I do join my colleagues for social outings when I can because it’s an important way to bond and become a trusted member of the team. Join casual conversations in the office kitchen or if the guys are all heading out for a coffee together, invite yourself. I’ve done it and I’ve often been privy to eye-opening conversations, which gave me clarity on workplace dynamics and helped establish me as part of the team’s ‘trusted circle’. Get yourself in there and connect during those informal outings as much as possible.
See, nothing too strenuous.