Being a Woman in a Male-Dominated Career Isn’t All Bad

Sure, there’s room for improvement, but my experience taught me some valuable lessons.
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Sure, there’s room for improvement, but my experience taught me some valuable lessons.

Women face workplace challenges that most men never have to think twice about. From glass ceilings to constant work–life balance struggles, everywhere a woman turns there seems to be a daunting reality. And while as women we often hear a lot about what holds us back, women also can and do succeed in male-dominated industries. Having spent most of my career as a political journalist, I can certainly speak to what it’s like to work in a male-dominated field—and my experience might surprise you.

Sure, there have been tough times—times when I had to stop and regroup and realize that the sexes’ brains operate differently, and there’s no getting around it. But I’ve also found that being a woman has its advantages, and I’ve learned how to appreciate the ways I stand out among the boys’ club. Researchers such as Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a former professor of psychology at Yale University, agree. Based on more than twenty-five years of research, her book The Power of Women talks about the fact that sometimes, women even have an upper hand. So, while I agree that we have much to work on toward gender equality in the workplace (here’s looking at you, wage gap), it’s not all bad if you learn to recognize how being a woman among men is a powerful place to be. Here are a few things I’ve learned from working in a male-dominated industry throughout my career.

Women Approach Problems Differently

A study in the British Journal of Health Psychology found “a trend toward greater emotional expressivity in women as compared to men." This difference in emotional expressiveness translates to how we responded to crises in the office. One time, a senator called asking me for a speech. When I asked her when she needed it by, she said, “I’m in my car about thirty minutes away from my destination to give it.” I freaked out.

I ran down the hall to my supervisor’s office and gave him the scoop. I waited for him to get emotional about it. But after a few quiet words of frustration, he got up, walked down to our newsroom, and instructed our entire media staff to stop what they were doing. We each looked up a fact or two. I compiled them and called her as she rolled into her event. The guys were all calm and cool as they sought to complete the task. While obviously not all women react as emotionally as I did, evidence suggests that men are immediately more oriented to get straight to solving when faced with a problem.

In one of the largest studies looking at commonly held beliefs about the sexes, Ragini Verma, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of radiology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted research in brain imaging. Findings indicated that the brain connectivity in males enables a “get the job done” type of attitude. The research noted that male brains are geared “to link perception with doing.”

The Penn Medicine press release on the research states “. . . on average, men are more likely better at learning and performing a single task at hand, like cycling or navigating directions, whereas women have superior memory and social cognition skills, making them more equipped for multitasking and creating solutions that work for a group.”

I admit I was envious of my male coworkers’ ability to tackle what I saw as a crazy request. But Nolen-Hoeksema writes: “Women have emotional strengths—the ability to understand their own feelings and those of others and to use this understanding to cope in life. These emotional strengths also allow women to anticipate the emotional consequences of life situations, which makes them particularly skilled at making major decisions.”

I’ve learned from the men around me how to approach stressful situations with ease. Men are motivated by purpose, and the brain imagery study supports my own observation and experience. I appreciate that my emotional strengths enable me to be a good empathizer and to make major decisions wisely. But I’m also glad that I now know how to set my emotions aside to solve a problem in the short term.

It’s OK to Embrace Femininity

Verily Relationships Editor Monica Gabriel writes, “Many women grit their teeth when men take on a ‘ladies first’ mentality, and if you ask the average man why ladies should go first, they would say something like, ‘Because they are ladies?’ Men and women often translate this as perceived weakness, and women do not want handouts, especially if the intention is that our male counterparts think that we can’t ‘handle it.’ But perhaps if honor was the intention of the gesture, we wouldn’t roll our eyes at it so much. Can this kind of chivalry stage a comeback?”

My answer is yes! At work, rarely did I open a door for myself or pick up a check without someone else offering when eating out. My male colleagues all behaved like good big brothers. They treated me like a queen. Once, when a male colleague attempted to open the door for me (and I let him), he said, “Wow, some women get mad when I try to open the door.” I responded, “Not me; I expect the man to open the door.”

Nolen-Hoeksema found that “women have identity strengths that allow them to maintain a strong sense of themselves and their values in whatever situations they find themselves.” The colleague who opened the door for me and the other men seemed to appreciate that I was forthright about expectations such as opening the door or offering to carry heavy items. Many of them shared that they were often confused about how to be a man these days. It seemed that no matter what they did, some woman would respond indignantly. In this small way, the guys started to show how they loved opening the doors for me.

It got to be embarrassing sometimes when our whole office went out because they would fight for the door. But in a United Kingdom study on the topic of chivalry, the majority of female participants overwhelmingly welcomed these kinds of gestures. And, if “chivalry can be brought back to life by men and women who practice it in its true spirit,” as Gabriel continues, I learned that it didn’t kill me to say thank you.

Besides allowing myself to be treated like a lady, I started taking advantage of a lady’s resources—namely, the restroom. While working on media staffs at the U.S. and Indiana state Senates, going to the restroom was my time to regroup. Because most of my colleagues were men, this space was basically mine alone. No waiting to wash my hands. No sharing a mirror to reapply my lipstick.

Our newsroom was often super-loud and chaotic, so I would use the powder room for some quiet time to do final edits to a press release or radio show script before it went out. I could focus on the one project in front of me. This freedom and personal space was something I didn’t take for granted. I was thankful that I had a private place to take a deep breath and reboot for action.

The Team Is Stronger with Us All

In political media, we would play hard, sweat a lot, and we would all get knocked down at one point or another. It’s a competitive and harsh world. We approached it with hardcore competition. But within our workplace, the competition was not with each other. I didn’t feel like I had to one-up my colleagues. Rather, I felt that we were all working toward a shared goal.

Because the men I worked with had an ingrained idea of our staff being a team, the guys were there to grab your hand and pick you up if you fell or got knocked down—no questions asked. It was an automatic and beautifully loyal response.

As a team, you need different skills to all work together. Of course, individuals are going to have their own unique strengths and weaknesses, but science does provide some broad insight into differences between men and women.

Researchers from Northeastern University observed two different professional environments to see how each gender’s propensity to talk may vary by setting. The study’s findings in Scientific Reports indicate that women talk more than men in collaborative, task-based settings. In more individualized, unstructured settings, there was no difference between how much men and women talked.

So, at least in group work settings where both genders are present, women are more verbal by nature than men. When a person’s job is working on media staff, having the gift of gab is a definite advantage. During our editorial meetings, I thought creatively, reacted, responded, and often outproduced my male counterparts.

I think the reason for my success was that, as a female, I am uniquely gifted with words. The brain imaging research done by the University of Pennsylvania shows that women have more connections in regions of the brain controlling processing, integration, and analytical abilities. The studies indicated, “Females outperformed males on attention, word and face memory, and social cognition tests.”

I delivered work beyond expectations and within the confines of many strict deadlines. Not only did I gain professional respect from my male colleagues, but I also stood out. Some research shows that key factors for successful teamwork include “women’s more optimistic assessments of their prospective teammate’s ability and men’s greater responsiveness to efficiency gains associated with team production.” In my experience, this rang true: When men and women work together, the team gets the best of both worlds.

If you have the opportunity to work in a male-dominated industry, take it from me: It’s not all bad. I hope you find that in spite of the challenges of being one of the few women in your workplace, along the way you’ll experience several pleasantly surprising benefits of your own.

Photo Credit: Ryan Flynn Photography