Last updated 8 March, 2023

Women at work: 7 ways to thrive in a male-dominated space

While the gender gap in today’s workforce is slowly trending in the right direction, many women still find themselves working in male-dominated environments. Being a woman in these settings often brings unique challenges, and those who want to advance their careers continue to face bigger roadblocks than their male counterparts.

Let’s look at the stats

  • In Australia, the gender pay gap persists at 14.2 per cent, and women on average earn $26,956 less than men each year.

  • In 2021, women made up only 27 per cent of the workforce across all STEM industries in Australia.

  • Almost a quarter of all boards and governing bodies in Australia have no female directors.

  • The 2022 Women in the Workplace study found only 1 in 4 C-suite leaders in the US is a woman.

  • The above study also found women in leadership are leaving their jobs at the highest rates ever seen; and 60 per cent of women in mid-level positions are thinking of quitting their careers.

Common workplace barriers 

Some of the biggest challenges women continue to face in the workplace include:

  • Lack of equity – equal pay and equal opportunity for advancement

  • Gender and race bias

  • Gender stereotypes

  • Limited support for female employee wellbeing

  • Pregnancy discrimination

  • Microaggressions – subtle slights that can lead to physical and emotional distress, and poor performance.

While being a woman in a male-dominated environment does bring obstacles, it is possible not only to survive but also to thrive. 

7 ways for women to thrive at work

Whether you are a woman working in STEM or another male-dominant arena, find yourself in the minority in the boardroom, or simply want to get a firm hold of that first rung of the career ladder, these strategies can help you claim your power to shine:

#1. Be confident.

Women tend to second-guess themselves and struggle with feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. A recent survey of 750 high-performing female executives found 75 per cent have experienced imposter syndrome. Other research has shown that women are less likely to speak up in meetings than men, and that when they do, they tend to apologise and allow themselves to be interrupted.

Remind yourself that you are here because you have the knowledge and skills to do your job. Recognise your potential and trust your abilities. Don’t let anyone else define what you’re capable of; and don’t be afraid to speak up – raise your hand, voice your opinion, share your ideas, and ask for a pay rise when you feel you deserve it. Remember, if you stay silent, or sit on the sidelines, you’ll remain unnoticed. 

Try these tips to build your confidence in the workplace:

  • Banish your inner critic

  • Practise confident body language

  • Dress for success

  • Let go of perfectionism

  • Use positive affirmations

  • Develop your personal brand

#2. Become a great communicator.

Sound communication skills are a must-have for anyone who wishes to succeed in their professional life. Effective communication is vital for transferring information, sharing ideas, building trust, and developing healthy relationships. For women, in particular, it also helps to project confidence, challenge authority, negotiate effectively for what they deserve, and set clear boundaries. It leaves no room for misunderstandings and reduces the potential for conflict. 

Helpful tips to be a better communicator:

  • Ask open-ended questions

  • Learn to listen 

  • Avoid interrupting and interjecting

  • Pay attention to body language – yours and theirs

  • Be clear and specific

Great communicators practise their skills; choose their words wisely; understand their audience; and pick the time and place carefully!

#3. Never stop learning.

Learning, development and upskilling are integral to levelling up your career.  Through continuous learning, you’ll not only stimulate your mind but also broaden your perspective and maintain your passion for what you do – whether you are just starting out or have reached the top rung of the ladder. It also fuels self-growth, which helps boost your self-confidence; brings greater career fulfilment; improves your earning power; and ensures your future employability. 

In gaining new knowledge and expanding your skills set, you’ll be better equipped to adapt in an ever-changing business environment. The more you know and can do, the bigger the contribution you’ll make; and in continuing your professional development, you’ll demonstrate your perseverance, as well your ability to go above and beyond, making you a valuable asset to any organisation. 

Explore both formal and informal learning opportunities – take advantage of any training offered at work, read books, listen to podcasts, attend industry events, and network where and when you can. 

#4. Seek out men who can be allies.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of men believe in equal rights for women in the workplace. According to a 2019 global study of adults in 27 countries, 65 per cent of men agree women won’t achieve equality without their support; and 75 per cent say they would be comfortable having a female boss. 

But how do you spot would-be allies among your male colleagues? 

Typically, these co-workers and leaders will:

  • Listen to you when you speak

  • Support your opinions during meetings

  • Give credit where credit is due

  • Be happy to share the spotlight

  • Speak up when they witness gender bias

  • Show genuine interest and compassion

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking ‘all men are the same’ – it will only alienate you from male co-workers. Instead, identify individuals with whom you can build rapport. Create opportunities to interact with them, participate in activities that don’t involve work, initiate conversations, listen attentively when they speak, show appreciation for their support and, above all, be positive. Positivity is contagious and creates energy that will strengthen your connection with the people you work with.

#5. Be your own biggest advocate.

Every one of us has moments of self-doubt, but those who learn to control it are the ones who ultimately get ahead. Self-advocacy is an essential part of your career trajectory and it’s ongoing – every meeting, every discussion with your leader or manager is a potential opportunity to make a lasting impression. 

Before you can advocate for yourself, you must be able to:

  • Identify your strengths, talents and abilities

  • Recognise your weaknesses

  • Understand the value you bring to work

  • Effectively communicate your needs and boundaries

  • Clearly explain how reaching your goals will help your boss / the company further theirs

Don’t let fear and limiting beliefs hold you back – be confident, put yourself forward for opportunities and give yourself permission to say yes. 

Remember, no one is a mind reader; you have to speak up for yourself. Be prepared, remain professional and keep emotion out of it (self-advocacy is about what you deserve, not how you feel). Even if you don’t get what you want, you’ll be respected for your self-awareness, confidence and courage.

#6. Embrace your femininity.

Masculinity and femininity are meant to be complementary to each other but in a typically male-dominant space, masculine traits rule. The overvaluing of masculine traits in the workplace can send subtle messages that femininity is ‘inferior’, and may lead female employees to repress their natural feminine attributes. Michigan State University research found that female candidates ranked higher during interviews if they described themselves as ‘assertive’ and ‘independent’ (both masculine traits) rather than ‘warm’ and ‘supportive’ (feminine traits). 

Interestingly, both men and women develop better leadership skills when they tap into both their masculine and feminine energy; and traits such as empathy – once considered a sign of weakness – are now considered essential to build an engaged, high-performing workforce.

So, how do you embrace your feminine energy at work? 

  • Bring all of who you are to your role

  • Dare to be vulnerable – people respond positively to those who demonstrate their humanity

  • Be sensitive and compassionate – it’ll pave the way to more meaningful connections and stronger professional relationships

  • Be willing to ask for support – rather than a ‘sign of weakness’,  it opens the door to collaboration

  • Feel free to express creativity – it facilitates innovation and is essential to effective problem-solving

#7. Gather in sisterhood.

As the saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved. When women have the support of other women, they’re more likely to speak up, advocate for change, and propel one another towards achieving professional success. One study found that participating in women’s networking activities led to “a greater sense of wellbeing … and more positive attitudes towards the organisation or company for whom the woman works.”

Find a group of women whom you can authentically connect with – be that an informal network of female employees in the workplace or an industry group for women (or start your own). Female connection creates a safe space in which to share knowledge and experiences, vent frustrations, and express ideas without fear of judgement. It enables you to broaden your mind and shift your perspectives; boosts your mental and emotional wellbeing; and gives you a sense of belonging

Knowing there’s a whole community of women who anchor you and have your back encourages you to try new things, take risks and, ultimately, step into your power.

And remember, the experience of a woman in your field will not be the same as a man’s; women who’ve succeeded can offer you invaluable guidance and support in your own professional journey.

At the end of the day, you’re in control of your career. Keep honing your craft and developing your skills; believe in yourself; and don’t let anyone else define who you are or set the limits of your potential. 

"Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and, above all, confidence in ourselves." – Marie Curie, physicist

Originally published on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2023. Find out more about this day of celebration here.

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