How Women Can Lead in Male-Dominated Environments

Women in Leadership

When one thinks of male-dominated environments, a few immediate things come to mind like the military, sports, fire, police, and construction for example. But there are some other male-dominated industries which are less obvious like architecture, financial advisement, religion, information technology, and airline piloting. Is it possible for a woman to step into a leadership role in these environments and not only succeed, but excel?

Women can be leaders in any environment at any level, even traditionally male-dominated industries. The same leadership principles apply for good leadership, however women in these positions will face additional challenges as a general rule. Despite the additional challenges of leadership, there are numerous examples of women who have exceled in leadership roles in male-dominated industries.

Even though the question is often phrased something along the lines of “How can women excel in male-dominated industries” the real question being asked is something a little different. The question behind the question is “how can women leaders in male-dominated environments overcome the additional challenges they will be facing?” So what are these additional challenges and what must women in these leadership roles do to combat these threats?

Know the Challenges

Women are going to face four well-known challenges in leadership roles of male-dominated industries above and beyond their male counterparts.

  • Harmful Stereotypes
  • Lack of guidance or mentorship
  • Sexual harrassment

These three challenges combine to create the fourth challenge. As a general rule, a women will have to face the pressures of leadership will be doing so with demonstrably higher levels of stress and anxiety.

Throughout history, any time a power dynamic has been challenged it has been met with fierce opposition. Women gaining ground in male-dominated spaces is a microcosm of this shifting power dynamic axiom at play, and she gets the joy of the pressures that come with it.

Which stereotypes female leaders face will vary depending on the cultural frame, and it will also vary depending on the subculture. But generally, one of the more powerful stereotypes women will have to contend with is that of motherhood. There is a common stereotype, at least in western culture, that women cannot have a successful career and be good, nurturing mothers at the same time. Or worse, that women’s role in society should be taking care of children, not leading organizations.

Four challenges women face in male-dominated industries.

Sexual harassment, harmful stereotypes, lack of mentorship, and higher stress and anxiety.

So despite typical leadership challenges, women will often also face people who question there character simply by being there instead of being at home raising children (American Psychological Association). And that’s just one stereotype.

Women will also have to contend with a lack of mentorship. With fewer women in these roles, there are fewer success patterns to emulate. There are fewer models women can learn from in order to succeed. So in many ways, the journey can be a lonely one leaving the leader to figure out things on her own rather than learning from others ahead of her.

And we would be remiss to neglect the elephant in the room; sexual harassment. Women, even in leadership roles, experience sexual harassment at a rate more than double compared to their male counterparts (Pew Research Center). And naturally, these additional challenges lead to women in leadership roles having demonstrably higher stress and anxiety levels compared to their male counterparts.

So what can women do to combat these challenges?

Do Not Try to be “One of the Guys”

In our article on How to Dominate a Job Interview, we mention people are good at detecting insincerity. Even when they cannot put their finger on what’s making them uncomfortable, they can generally sense something is not right with the behavior. You are less likely to earn social acceptance by being insincere than by being yourself. No one likes a try-hard.

I once had a toxic boss (which by the way, you can check out our article on Leading in a Toxic Environment), and he and I did not get along at all. But, one of the most intelligent things he ever said to me was, “there are 7 billion people in the world, you are going to kill yourself trying to make all of them like you. Just be who you are and people will gravitate to your authenticity.” Who knew even psychopaths could sometimes have great insights?

And so it is with women in these leadership roles in male-dominated cultures. Do not try to be a people pleaser and fit in. You will have to carve your own path by being uniquely you.

Find a Support Network

As we often say here at The Arise Tribe, the journey to greatness is often lonely, but that does not mean you have to be alone. Women should not be alone in their leadership journey. And there are several great resources and communities available, including ours!

Mentor Someone

Be that person for someone. There are lots of great studies and research papers to indicate that mentors gain just as much as those being mentored. Becoming a mentor to a young woman who is an up and coming leader is just as likely to contribute to your growth as leader as hers. Plus you get the added benefit of changing the narrative and helping to reduce the impact of one of the challenges women leaders face (a lack of mentors).

Learn Your Industry Inside and Out

Author and motivational speaker Brian Tracy says, “in order to make money in your industry, you have to be in the top 10% in your field.” In a similar way, you will have to be in the “top 10%” of most knowledgeable people in your organization about your work and industry. People are going to come at you often and try to demonstrate to others you are ignorant. Despite typical leadership challenges, you have to immerse yourself in your industry and organization and know more than almost everyone else.

Lead By Example

One of the most powerful tools anyone can have is being able to play an Uno Reverse Card when something bad happens. If you are able to demonstrate calm in the face of looming danger, or if you are able to remain stoic if someone is yelling at you, these are the kinds of actions which hold a mirror up to everyone who is watching. By maintaining your poise, you are sending the message that you are handling this situation better than they could if the roles were reversed. So don’t view setbacks as bad things, they are always an opportunity to demonstrate your greatness.

I once had a boss who would rant about snowflakes, people getting “butthurt” over things so easily, and that the problem with the world today is people just need to “toughen up.” As is almost always the case with people who rant about this kind of thing, they are the most sensitive people in the office. So whenever he would proceed to begin yelling or fussing at me, I would always stay calm and simply say, “you seem emotionally compromised right now. Would you like to talk about this later when you are more calm?” I still smile about the look on his face sometimes.

The point is, these instances while unpleasant are often your biggest tools to earning the respect of others. These moments are a treasure, don’t let them just pass!

Take Care of Your Mental Health

This final tip is sound advice for almost any time, anywhere. But do not neglect your mental health. I read once that people who experience breakdowns do so not because they are weak, but because they have been strong for too long. Make sure you have a good therapist, support network, mentor, or some other form of taking care of your mental and emotional wellness. Do not lose yourself in your role as leader. That is not your entire identity, it’s one aspect of everything which makes you, uniquely and specifically you.

Erik Murrah

Author, nerd, chess player, artist, business owner, runner, mediocre philosopher, outdoorsman. Creator of the Arise Tribe.

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