The industry I work in is notorious for being male-dominated: technology and defence. But I love it, and I wanted to share some thoughts about how to make a male-dominated environment work for you.
Be a disruptor
There’s not as many women in STEM as there should be – but we’re working in it.
For starters, don’t deliberately act like a man; the benefit of you is you think differently. We’ve got more and more customers who are asking for thought diversity. The research shows that companies with more balanced boards perform better. Who wouldn’t want that?
It comes down to balance. If you have such a male-dominated industry, you can drive not only the wrong behaviours but the wrong solutions. It’s not just gender imbalance either. We have a saying: ‘male, pale and stale’ and that’s because you end up not identifying the best answer when everyone’s thinking the same.
This means it’s important to make sure people can progress by being themselves. You shouldn’t have to be anybody other than yourself when you go to work. That energy you put into being someone else would be much more valuable applied to your job.
And finally, you have to challenge. Challenging is not negative, it’s positive. If it doesn’t come naturally, practice it. You have to learn to say: “Are you sure that’s the best way of doing it?” Challenging politely and positively is an incredibly valuable skill. You don’t have to be aggressive about it. Just say ‘can we just talk that through?’ The most important thing is getting to the right answer. It can be disruptive. But disruptive is not a negative word, especially not in tech – both Google and Apple are often described as ‘disruptive’.
Just do it and build a network
If there is a gap above you, fill it. Don’t wait for somebody to give you permission to do it and don’t wait for the promotion. You do it, and then you turn around and show them the evidence. The evidence shows that women are worse at putting themselves forward – so you have to practice. Prove to yourself and everyone else that you can do it.
Learning how to manage upwards is just as important as learning how to manage people below you. For this you need sponsorship. You need somebody who will speak for you if you need them to. So it’s important to build up a network of people – I know everyone says it, but it genuinely is. And again, this is something you can learn. There is training and support if you need it. Personally, networking is never something that has come easily to me, I’ve had to practice and it still takes a lot of concentration.
You might get imposter syndrome, but if so you have to learn how to deal with how it manifests for you. For me, it’s having someone in my work environment who I can discuss my reaction to something with. ‘This is how I felt, but this is how I reacted – was that appropriate?’ and just double check that I did the right thing.
Mentoring doesn’t need to be formal, and I prefer it when it’s not. If you seek out somebody at work and say ‘I’d like to chat about my career’ there’s no way they’ll say ‘no’!
Be the change
Although I’m seeing more women coming through at the junior grades, the problem seems to be keeping them. And a lot of people like to write that off as breaks for family, but I’m not 100 per cent sure that it is.
I think there is a competitiveness to getting beyond a certain point that is off-putting. I think that we should at least acknowledge it and then we might be able to help. It comes back to advocacy and learning how to challenge things.
I don’t mind kicking up a fuss and being the first person to do something. If you can have that attitude that’s really helpful. Just because something’s not been done before doesn’t mean that you can’t.
One situation I have come across is around panel sessions, and that sometimes you suspect you are being asked to balance out the speakers. A lot of people I know, men and women alike, want to be asked to speak because they are the best person to do so, and balk at the idea of being prioritised because of their gender rather than their qualifications.
Now personally, I have no problem with this. Maybe I am not the most qualified, but it is so important for young women to see women out there doing these things that if I have something to say then I will take that slot. Maybe a few people think ‘oh she’s just the token woman’ – but maybe a young woman sees and thinks ‘I could do that’. That’s worth it for me.