It s a dynamic that most women will have to face at some point in their career: integrating themselves into a male-dominated workplace. And it s one of those situations that gets more pronounced as they move up the ladder, when the number of women in CEO suites and upper-management positions seem to dwindle.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that women remain severely under represented in most non-traditional professional occupations as well as blue-collar trades. For instance, women are only 10 percent of all engineers; three percent of airplane pilots and navigators; less than two percent of carpenters and auto mechanics; 15 percent of architects; and about one-quarter of doctors and lawyers.
Martha Burk, a political psychologist, women s equity expert and the author of Cult of Power (Scribner, 2005) says that before a woman even takes a job she should do a background on her employer to asses the climate toward women at the company. I tell women to look at whether there are a sufficient number of women in leadership roles. Look into whether there have there been lawsuits mounted against the company for sexual harassment or discrimination, she says. No one wants to come into a system that is stacked against him or her. We all want to say that it won t happen here or it won t happen to me, but that s just na ve.
Linda Sanchez says she knew going to work on a trading floor was the equivalent of walking into an old boys club, just by looking at the number. Sanchez boils her success in this testosterone-dominated environment down to coming off as someone who wasn t going to be easily offended. I didn t want the guys I worked with to tiptoe around me and alter their conversations. These are people I spend 15 to 16 hours a day with, so I didn t want to have to put on earmuffs, or for people to feel that they had to put their phones on private when I was around, she says.
Amy Dorn Kopelan, president of COACH ME Inc., a nonprofit group based in New York City that helps women with the subtle skills and unwritten rules of work, says one of the cardinal rules of working in a predominately male environment is no whining. Whining is really about complaining about something that isn t fair. Your office is too small, the lighting is bad, so and so has a better opportunity, whatever it is that makes the focus less on the business at hand and more on how you are being treated. It s a behavior that isn t healthy and does not promote a good working relationship between men and women, she says. Along those same lines, Kopelan advises women to check their emotions at the door. To a certain extent, Kopelan advises women to forget about gender, even if you are the lone female in an all-male environment. I would say to follow the money. If someone comes in, regardless of sex, they have to think how they are going to affect the bottom line.
While workplace experts agree that whining and bringing emotion into the workplace are categorical office no-nos, what about the murkier areas of dirty jokes or activities that are not female-friendly? Kopelan says the big rule for women is to go home alone. A lot of people feel that they can fit in better if they cozy up to someone more than they probably should. You have to set boundaries.
Workplace experts say, too, that it s essential to assert yourself at the office, particularly if your male colleagues are getting the cushier assignments. Burk advises women to get documentation and present the evidence. She recommends saying something along the lines of, Joe has gotten four of the last five assignments. If there is a criterion for the assignments that I don t have, I d like to know what is. I think a gentle, confrontational approach can work, she says. Burk cautions, however, that you don t want to keep hitting your head against a wall. Women have to be realistic about what they are facing and what they can personally do to improve the situation.
As for the more pesky comments, experts agree that humor and directness are good strategies. Try these:
I don t think your wife (or girlfriend) would want to hear you saying that to me.
I don t think that is an appropriate discussion for the office.
Pretend you don t get it.
Hannah Seligson is a writer based in New York currently working on her first book, New Girl on the Job: How Not to Cry at Work to be published by Kensington Books in the spring of 2007.
Copyright CTW Features
By Hannah Seligson