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Begin with success > Scary truths no one told you > Working in a Male-Dominated Environment

Working in a Male-Dominated Environment

By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

Is there any other sort of work environment? Not in my career in marketing and business consulting in the UK and Australasia.

And that’s the nub of the problem. When these environments are all you know, how can you tell what’s behind what you’re experiencing? Is it your imagination? Is there, in fact, an issue with your performance? Surely it can’t really all be because you pee in a different room?

Pinning issues on gender feels so melodramatic. It can even seem like a cop out and, what’s more, it’s pointless because no-one will ever admit it to your face. You’re sunk before you start.

But sometimes there’s no question that being female is the issue.

The Vetting Panel

Years ago I was working with a sizeable consulting team on an assignment for a forestry organisation. You could walk along miles of the office and factory floors and never find a woman who was in more than a lowly administrative role.

One work module was to run customer interviews, and that module fell to me. The client apparently had conniptions. Not only were the wretched consultants insisting on talking to customers (the very idea!) but they were going to send Sarah to do it.  What did they say to the consulting partner? “Get her in at the end of the next management meeting. We have to be sure whoever does this is up to talking business to our customers.” The partner was mildly apologetic – but it was clear I was on my own with this one.

So there I was at the end of long day, the lone woman sitting at the King Arthur-style table, men on each side, being quizzed on what I’d say, how I’d handle questions, and what my experience in the industry was. I must have convinced them that it was my interviewing experience that counted, and that I had plenty of that. They still sent me out with a couple of minders. “Just to help with driving and with the introductions.” Somebody probably called me ‘dear’ too…

If I’d been a man would they have vetted me like that? Oh, please.

Hard Work

I never dwelt on this incident because I was too busy working insanely hard on a succession of mentally and physically demanding projects. Delivering unswervingly excellent results were the table stakes for remaining in the organisation. I wouldn’t say I worked harder than the men, but it was a fundamentally competitive environment and everyone knew of others (male and female) who had not made the grade. Up or out. It was very masculine in that sense. I enjoy competition but I found the unremitting performance pressure very wearing, despite my strengths of perseverance, curiosity and critical thinking. To be honest, I think a lot of my male colleagues found it tedious, too.

Trusted Advisors

One area that, in retrospect, I struggled with in the male-dominated workplace was the absence of female role-models who were located any closer than 2000 km. I also lacked a network of trusted women advisors outside the firm for perspective and support. I was the senior woman in a small office and it was up to me to trail blaze.  Nowadays there are fabulous resources online (like but when, for example, I was pregnant in 1995 that simply wasn’t the case.

If I can offer one piece of advice, especially to younger women reading this, it would be to build up your cadre of women advisors, both inside (if available) and outside your company. And make sure some of them are professionals like you, working in similar environments. Family members can be wonderfully supportive, but, depending on their careers and work background, they won’t always understand the nature of large, complex organisations. When times get tough, or you doubt yourself, your advisors can provide vital perspective, fresh ideas and inject a dose of much-needed confidence.


By the way, these trusted advisors are one of the huge values of networking. For you lawyers and accountants and consultants out there – most of you in very male-dominated environments if you’re past the first rung of the ladder – don’t think of networking as a slightly grubby sales generation tool. Think of it as a way to find wonderful professional women (and enlightened men) who can become trusted advisors you can call on. And to whom you can provide advice in return.

I’m going to say it: it’s easier for men. They are in the majority, surrounded by people who can instinctively empathise with them and support them. Their natural networks are all around them in the organisation so, even if their work schedule is intense and their external connections limited, they still have an abundance of contacts that can grow informally into their trusted advisor group.

Informal is the operative word. I was long gone from one organisation before I realised that between the young men and the senior men there had been occasional coffees, casual lunches and leaning-on-your-office-wall chats about the young men’s future of a kind that had never happened to me.  And hardworking though I was, I was always up for coffee, lunch and talk!

A Woman’s Perspective

Of course, women can find valuable male advisors and mentors in their organisations – wisdom is not gender-linked – but there are some issues you’ll want to talk to a woman about because she will simply have far more relevant experiences.

How does she handle leadership of men and what has she found works? How would she respond to repeated veiled come-ons from a colleague? (Yes, they still happen. Give me full frontal any day, it’s the sneaky ones that are the worst).  What advice does she have around the huge pregnancy/ breastfeeding/ child care area? What tradeoffs worked for her after her family arrived and which does she regret? I’ll repeat, get that cadre of women about you, you’re going to need them.

One Size Fits (unless you’re a size 6)

Another little story, this one from a project at a steel mill. For the mill tour we had to listen to a safety briefing and kit up in special gear. Arc furnaces are the next closest thing to Hell so it was spark-resistant coats and steel-capped boots all round. Except for me. I went through the ash, over the gratings, past the flames, in my black patent courts with two inch heels because they had nothing to fit.

It’s symptomatic of the biggest issue for me as a woman in male-dominated environments. Everything is made to fit someone else. Not just shoe size but the language, leisure interests, expectations, family structure. It’s subliminal, though, almost unseen, like the proverbial nine-tenths of the iceberg. Sure, we can sigh at “he/his/him” language norms, we can roll our eyes at one more office lunch with no salad in sight and we sound petty if we mention it, but it’s the little unfair actions that, singly, are not worth making a fuss about, that add up to a frustrating and alienating environment for ambitious women.

An Army

Under the micro-inequities, of course, lurk the truly macro ones. Many organisations we work in today were shaped in the first half of the last century. They are predicated on notions of patriarchy and hierarchy. They presuppose a workforce that can readily devote all its time and energy to the firm because of the reliance on other people who are back home doing the very many other jobs necessary to keep the workforce fed, clothed, and organised. Really, it’s just like an army, where the generals are men, the chain of command is inviolable and where there are nine people in support for every front line soldier…

But nobody acknowledges this! The ‘war for talent’ has not yet threatened the status quo enough to make those generals truly review the training and deployment of their troops. The sense of urgency and the commitment to change remains largely lacking.

As long as that continues, the deeply rooted norms and expectations of 100% flexibility and 100% loyalty to the organisation will persist. Requests for part-time work will continue to be seen as a terminal lack of commitment (for women and men). Children will enhance a man’s stature but diminish a woman’s because she is assumed, often rightly, to be the fallback caregiver. And CEOs who believe they are offering flexible work will look on in puzzlement as educated, talented women in their mid 30s flow out of the door, never to return.

Making Peace

Ahem! I will climb down from my soap box to offer a final thought.  I absolutely do not advocate that women go through their professional lives looking for inequities or worrying that there’s discrimination going on behind closed doors. You’ll exhaust yourself emotionally. Make your peace with the environment, or at least with the micro-inequities, and pick your battles carefully on the macro ones.  If there are enough good things about working in such organisations then make an explicit trade-off and live with it until it feels time to review it again.

Three Good Things

I’ve challenged myself now – what ARE three good things about working in male-dominated organisations? Here goes:

  1. They tend to be the largest organisations, the most highly resourced, and acknowledged as best-in-class. Career-wise, they are where you want to be.
  2. They are a good place to find a husband.  I know I did and I’m sure a lot of you reading this met your man at work, too!
  3. Lastly, as a woman, you stick out like a sore thumb. Now, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling’s “IF”… If you can:

a. figure out how to turn that prominence to your advantage while staying true to yourself

b. find a way to take the best of the men’s way of doing things while not turning into a man

c. cope with being a magnet for female tasks like minute-taking yet say “no” effectively and respectfully

d. create your own female dress code version of ‘smart casual’ that makes you, and all around you, comfortable

Well then… …”You’ll be a man, my son.”

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