She who shares her story of…
Just One of the Boys
It was my first leadership position and I was to be the only female on the management table in this male-dominated industry based in a remote community. This was my chance to prove myself to this business and show them that this woman in her late twenties was worth continuing to develop and take further up the corporate ladder.
I would never have been described as someone who was softly spoken, but I also wouldn’t have been given a descriptor of loud either. Thanks to having parents that used the punishment of soap or on one occasion I recall a wooden spoon doing the job, I tended to use more British profanity than English like “bollocks” or “bugger” or “bloody hell”. Or if I was really wanting to show I was frustrated, I might have been heard saying “son of a…” and you know what, the person I was speaking to knew what to finish that sentence off with!
A few more things to know about me for the completeness of my story – I was never a smoker. I couldn’t stand being around people who did. I was a novice connoisseur of fine wine and premium gin served with premium tonic and a dash of lemon to taste. I hated golf. I didn’t get what was enjoyable about hitting a little ball and then walking after it no matter where it landed with the intent to do that all over again, and then ending a very long day with just having done that all day. I didn’t watch football enough to understand the rules or the individuals who were playing or the teams who were good. I could have a good crack at guessing their team colours and nicknames though. And just to finish things off…I was a vegetarian. Even the smell of meat on a BBQ made me queasy. I could handle fish though so I think that made me a pescatarian.
Now, back to the story about this politely spoken, non-smoker, premium wine & gin drinking, golf-hater, football incompetent, fish eating vegetarian, young female who started working in a male-dominated industry in a leadership position. I don’t think my story has to elaborate too deep for you to understand how I experienced challenges transitioning into this business unit and being accepted for what I brought to the table.
But, I did overcome those challenges. I managed to fit in. I managed to be heard. I managed to be appreciated. I managed to make my mark as one of the leadership team members…
…I don’t recommend anyone doing what I did to achieve this acceptance…
I became a fowl mouthed, social smoker, beer & whiskey drinker, who regularly played golf after work with my colleagues and all day Sunday, while talking about the football statistics of the weekend prior and how they would predict the play of the teams the coming week, and most disappointingly, I would be doing that while munching down on my juicy hamburger with double bacon. I succeeded in my dream of progressing my career. But I did it as someone one I didn’t know was within me. I shouldn’t have had to change those characteristics to have been included and provided the opportunity to shine.
Being treated like an outsider. Feeling like you have to prove yourself. Struggling to make your voice heard. Wondering if you need to behave differently to be noticed. Women in male-dominated occupations face unique challenges and use distinct coping strategies that in turn affect their motivation and retention in these occupations.
Some of these coping strategies and therefore elements of women’s resilience in a male-dominated industry include the use of adopting stereotypical male characteristics. Of being someone they are not.
The traits and characteristics that we typically associate with effective leadership endorse stereotypically masculine attributes. Feminine stereotypes negatively interact with leadership schema. Our ideals of what it means to be ‘female’ do not fit our ideals of what it means to be ‘leader’. This disconnect, often manifesting as an unconscious preference for male leaders, contributes to the glass ceiling facing women in their professional careers. This places women in a tenuous position. On the one hand, to emerge as a leader, women must adopt traits consistent with leadership stereotypes, i.e. act more stereotypically masculine. But, when women do put on more masculine characteristic, they are not bringing their true self to work and offering the value diversity can bring to a business.
The Call to Action
We must strive for cultural change such that women and men are able to bring their authentic self to work. Women should not have to “man up” or be “one of the boys” to be included and respected for the value they bring to the business. Women should not feel excluded because they don’t talk the “laddish” talk at work.
Everyone in your business needs to feel like they have a voice regardless of what character they bring to your business. If people feel a sense of connection and belonging, they can share and contribute with confidence the uniqueness they bring. An organisation’s leaders are monumental in promoting an inclusive workplace culture. Diversity and inclusion are often treated as a single initiative owned exclusively by HR. But for real change to happen, every individual leader needs to buy into the value of belonging — both intellectually and emotionally. The behaviours of leaders can drive up to 70 percentage points of difference between the proportion of employees who feel highly included and the proportion of those who do not. Educate your company’s leaders about the importance of inclusivity.