Eight years ago I changed careers from Nursing to Health Technology.
I experienced many frustrations as one of few women in the room, including the cliché of being mistaken for the administrative assistant (yes, that actually happens).
While I firmly believe more needs to change to attract and retain women in fields like technology, there are also things I wish I knew moving into a male-dominated workplace.
My mother told me I would have to work “twice as hard to get half as far.” In some ways she was right — my male colleagues are not tested nearly as frequently as I am. The temptation is to overcompensate by working harder and appearing tougher than them. For many years that is exactly what I did: my day started earlier and ended later, I worked “at least a little” every weekend and I really only ever talked about work.
How did it turn out? Not well — I was not seen as a fun person to be around.
Being a workaholic was both exhausting for me and off-putting for others. When budgets were trimmed, I was told to start looking.
People of all genders like seeing their peers as people, not robots programmed only for work. I did not understand until later how important it is to build relationships and find opportunities to have fun.
When I started my career in health technology, I kept hearing it was a boy’s club. I heard it so often that I held myself back from reaching out to people and building connections. Instead I kept my head down and waited for my invitation to join the club.
When the invitation never arrived, I got a bit angry. That anger inspired me to go ahead and invite myself. I started making my own introductions, jumping into conversations and showing up at happy hours. If I heard someone talking about an activity or project, I asked how I could join.
Guess what happened? I met new people, widened my network, and was put in charge of bigger projects. The experience made me realize that I, like many women, waited for my invitation when I could have invited myself.
I always hated when people told me to learn about football so I could connect with male colleagues. Having grown up in the midwest, I knew if I did not love football by now I never will.
While you do not have to become a sports expert to make friends in a male-dominated field, it helps to find something to bond over — that could be any number of things. In health tech, bonding over TV shows worked well. “Game of Thrones” had more fans among my peers than any sport. We even had an office pool (which I helped organize) predicting who would be alive by the end of the series.
Whether it is a TV show, exploring places to eat, travel destinations, or, sure, a sport, finding something to bond over will build your support network.
My comfort zone is on the couch watching Food Network. By contrast, my career has led me to baseball games, golf tournaments and cocktail parties where the only other women were wives and girlfriends.
Learning how to appear comfortable even when I feel conspicuously out of place is a true super power.
I will sip a cocktail in the golf cart while my coworkers play. I know who will chat about the latest season of “The Crown” during a baseball game.
Appearing comfortable is what counts. Even when I would rather be watching “Chopped,” I know how to look like I am having a good time.
One of the best experiences of my career was in a leadership workshop that required me to interview the C-Suite of my company. It was eye-opening to learn how much these leaders wanted me to succeed. They understood the importance of encouraging more women.
The positive to being among the few women in a field is that leaders willingly give you their time. Make the most of it! Invest the effort in building one-on-one relationships that will help you to grow your career.
If there is one lesson to walk away with, it is that building relationships is critical to your success. Becoming a workaholic, waiting to be invited to the boy’s club, or avoiding activities that make you uncomfortable will not set you up for greatness.
It’s ok to be human — in fact, it’s preferred.
Lisa Jenkins Brooks is a Registered Nurse and writer on a mission to help people transition to the digital health era. In her career she has taught information system classes for nurses and led large technology projects at healthcare companies.
She is the writer behind Writing the Future of Health, and holds a Master’s Degree in Nursing Informatics. When not writing, Lisa loves recreating dishes from her travels (Shanghai pan-friend dumplings are a favorite), and relaxing with her lazy pit bull.
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