As we take the time to celebrate the incredible contributions of women throughout history during Women’s History Month, it’s also a good moment to look around at the women currently fighting to be taken seriously, gain equality, and earn well-deserved respect in spaces still dominated by sexism and discrimination.
If the last #OscarsSoMale season is any indicator, representation remains seriously lacking in many fields. According to a report from the Center for American Progress, women have outnumbered men on college campuses since 1988, but still makeup only 5 to 20 percent of the top leadership positions in fields such as law, medicine, and business. And while the number of female elected officials is nearly at an all-time high, (with the House hovering at about 27% female, and the Senate one percent less than its high of 25 percent from last term) it isn’t quite representative of half the U.S. population.
While I’m sure that while we can all agree that progress is necessary, the process of pushing your way into these male-dominated spaces can feel exhausting, if not impossible! For all the girls out there on the front lines, don’t give up! Here are four tips on how to feel more energized and empowered in male-dominated industries as you navigate presentations, meetings, interviews, and the dreaded office Christmas party.
- Stop giving stereotypes power to change you
When I was in middle school, it felt like there were only two paths: being the smart girl or the pretty girl. I sat in front of the mirror and practiced saying “like” between my words. Soon, I had carefully constructed a persona — one that included hair straighteners and mascara and who avoided talking about grades or speaking in class. Ten years later, I’m being warned against portraying myself as “a ditzy blonde” during job interviews. The expectations that I so perfectly matched are now a thorn in my side as I try to be taken seriously in the workplace.
I’ll bet that if I asked you to write a list of the stereotypes that others expect you to fulfill, you could easily fill a sheet of paper. While the perceptions of an “ideal woman” depend on context, background, and ethnicity, every one of us faces certain standards that are hard to break from.
I recently attended a panel discussion on my campus called “Perceptions of Femininity,” where women in various leadership positions discussed the effects of these pressures, expectations, and stereotypes on their lives. Diane Padilla, a former Executive Director and Assistant General Counsel at JP Morgan and current Title IX Coordinator at Wheaton College, used to feel that she had to act in certain ways to resist confirming stereotypes people might have of her as a Latinx woman.
“It felt important for me to always seem calm, but if you talk to my husband, he’ll tell you that’s not always the case!” Padilla joked. But more seriously, she urged us “be your authentic self instead.”
True empowerment is not conforming to or denying of other people’s standards. Rather, it’s in the rejection of stereotypes and their potential power over you.
Let me give an example to illustrate this point: Dr. Christin Fort, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College, recently decided to start baking. At face value, baking is a normal activity that many people across the world participate in every day. However, she had to ask, “Do I want to be seen as the female professor who brings baked goods to class?” She decided to bring the results of her baking to class anyway, regardless of the stereotypes, because she genuinely enjoyed doing it.
Whatever stereotypes you personally face in the workplace, you will only feel fully empowered when you understand that you don’t have to represent your entire group. You have no moral obligation to prove that those stereotypes are incorrect. The best way to break the power of stereotypes is to continue being the person you are. There are good reasons for expressing anger and very good reasons for making delicious bread for students — doing or being certain things does not mean that you always have to fit inside those boxes.
- Let go of the pressure to be polite
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that one in four women experience sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace, and many are “loathe to report it.”
Padilla, who assists students and faculty in raising concerns of potential discrimination or harassment, says, “If something does not feel right, speak up.” According to Padilla, many women are afraid to come forward about sexual harassment because they don’t want to stir the pot or cause tension at work. “Give up on being polite,” she advises.
It can be easy to question yourself about whether or not something qualifies as harassment, if you’re just being dramatic, or if reporting something will affect your position at the company. However, if something makes you feel uncomfortable, it should be stopped. You do not have to wait until it gets “bad enough” to confront the person or speak with someone who can help. You’re under no obligation to “keep the peace” at your own expense! They made a choice to engage in this behavior and there are serious consequences, as protected by law.
For more information about harassment and what to do if you think you may be experiencing it, click here.
- Give yourself credit for your own success
Ever heard of imposter syndrome? It’s defined as “the idea that you’ve only succeeded due to luck, and not because of your talent or qualifications” by Time Magazine. Their report claims that around 70 percent of people experience this feeling of “phoniness” in their job.
Similarly, according to the Harvard Business Review, girls stop believing that their gender is the “smart one” at age six. This internalized narrative has serious implications for grown-up versions of these girls who stopped thinking of themselves as intelligent and talented.
If you’re in a male-dominated field, it’s pretty likely that you’ve experienced some of these ideas in practice, either inside your own head or through hurtful words from a co-worker. It’s also pretty likely that this shame or insecurity isn’t true. But these things often become self-fulfilling prophecies. The more you don’t believe that you are capable, competent, and worthy of respect, the more you’ll start to act in ways that don’t demonstrate your own value.
According to Dr. Fort, simply walking with a sense of dignity and value in yourself can change the way that you are perceived by the people around you and increase your own confidence. Try to find a posture, she explains, that says, “I am worthy of respect and feminine at the same time.”
When you walk into a meeting with your male boss, attend a conference with your co-workers, or even spend time at a company party, present yourself as someone who expects to receive the respect of others and engage with the confidence of knowing what value you bring to the table.
- Treat other women as your support, not your competition
It’s so easy to hate the way that other women seem to fit stereotypes or are considered more successful or get more attention than you, but when it comes to breaking down the walls in male-dominated spaces, a win for one of us is a victory for all.
For Dr. Fort, one of the most important things in an environment where she was underrepresented was to find other women to ask, “Is this typical of the black female experience?” It’s essential, Padilla agrees, to have people around you that are able to say, “You’re not crazy!”
The key to empowerment is in your community, in your solidarity with other women, in the power of your friendships. You do not need to pave this road alone. You do not need to rely only on your inner energy. You are not required to stop needing people to be strong.
Not only can you accept help offered by other women in your workplace, but you can also strive to be that for them! If a woman isn’t being given the credit she deserves, speak up for her so that she doesn’t have to. If one of your female co-workers is acting particularly discouraged, affirm her by mentioning some valuable talent or contribution she’s brought to a project.
Most of all, when something good happens for one of your female co-workers, break out a bottle of champagne! In a discouraging and frustrating journey, an opportunity to celebrate is a gift.
But I still feel discouraged!
A 2018 study conducted by LinkedIn found that the number of women hired into leadership roles in Software/IT, Manufacturing, Entertainment, Hardware/Networking, and Public Safety (all traditionally male-dominated fields) has increased by more than 20 percent in each area over the past 10 years. Just think where we (and our sisters or daughters) could be in another 10 years.
It’s natural to feel the pressures and frustrations when working in an environment where you don’t feel entirely comfortable or welcome, but that doesn’t mean that you are incapable of thriving in your workplace. Though the feelings of discouragement are real, so are the moments of success, victory, excitement, and joy of doing what you love despite the hardships.