I used to have a distracting habit. Every meeting, I’d look around the room and take note of the male to female ratio. It was roughly 5:1 every single time. I figured it was because I worked in the mining industry, but I found the same to be true when I worked at a tech start-up. Eventually, I learned I was not alone.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women:
Make up less than 30 percent of the agriculture, manufacturing, transportation and utilities sectors.
Represent only 13 percent of the mining industry and 9 percent of the construction industry.
A study from Indiana University showed that women working in highly male-dominated occupations are more likely to exhibit high levels of psychological stress. And women working in STEM have been said to leave their employers because their environments don’t allow their scientific work to flourish.
Clearly, there’s more work required to close this gender gap. And it won’t be done overnight. So, how do you ensure your success today? It may seem counterintuitive, but the single thing you can do is to remove gender from the equation entirely. Here are three ways to thrive in a male-dominated industry using this perspective.
1. Quit counting.
The more you focus on the fact that there are more men than women in your workplace, the more it distracts you from being effective at your job. On my first day working at a mine, I joined one of the haul truck crews for a ride along. I tied my steel toed boot laces, tucked in my oversized men’s uniform shirt and put my hard hat and safety glasses on. I climbed onto the bus and quickly realized I was the only woman, and I could feel about forty eyes on me as I tried to find a seat. I heard one of the workers say, “With the lady on board, I won’t be able to piss off the side of my haul truck today!” Wow. The reality of my new environment set in, and I was distracted the rest of the day with an issue that I couldn’t solve alone.
Of course, you should promote women in the workplace, but worrying about being out numbered won’t solve any problems that day or drive any change. Instead, believe that you’re the woman to do the job and you have the skills and confidence to do it well.
2. Be direct.
According to research by Brigham Young University, women speak less when they’re outnumbered. Make a point to speak up at least once during every group interaction or meeting. It can be a question, compelling thought, or even better, a solution to a problem.
When you choose to speak, be direct. I’ve watched many women falter by sharing a vague opinion and ending with, “It’s just something to think about.” I was recently in a meeting and a team presented plans for a construction project where the women’s change house was several hundred feet from the worksite and the men’s change house was conveniently located right next door. My female colleague went in circles trying to explain her concern about the varying distances and avoided stating the obvious inconvenience for female workers. After she spoke, all the men in the room had puzzled faces and were only left with something to “think about”.
You want your coworkers to be compelled to act on your recommendation. So, sit up straight, speak clearly and make eye contact. The more you practice using your voice thoughtfully, the more others will look to you for your opinion. You are intelligent, and you have a voice. Use it.
3. Make allies.
One way women tend to cope with working amongst mostly men is to act like one of the boys or create distance between themselves and their female colleagues. Do not do this! You need relationships with both males and females at work. This is where taking gender out of the equation will make you more effective at your job. Having allies, mentors and healthy working relationships will take your career above and beyond. I’ve found this to be true when bouncing ideas or sharing concerns with both my male and female mentors who offered different perspectives and advice.
It may be tempting to just keep your head down and do your work, but developing relationships within the company will broaden your network, make you more visible and attractive for future roles or opportunities. Make time once a week to get lunch with a coworker, take your mentor for coffee or get to know someone on a more personal level.
Instead of worrying about the obvious gender imbalance in your workplace, focus on what you can control. You may think there’s nothing you can do to make a difference. But if you prove your worth, build relationships and advocate for women, you’ll attract more women to the industry and demonstrate the value of a diverse workforce. This solution is not a silver bullet, and may not work for every person. Some workplaces are just not the right fit. But before jumping ship, think about how you can change your mindset. Next time you’re out-numbered by men, be proud you’re the one representing the female workforce, and don’t let gender disparity get in the way of you reaching your highest potential.
More on being the only woman in the room:
Lita Madlang is a senior communications advisor for Rio Tinto, a global mining company. She is a writer and outdoor enthusiast from Salt Lake City, Utah. Lita has a BA in Mass Communications and is pursuing an Executive MS in Strategic Communications from Columbia University.