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How to Thrive in a Male-Dominated Workplace

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We’re pretty far removed from the days of Mad Men, where women were stuck in secretarial roles. Yet with all of the strides we’ve seen toward workplace equality for women, you can’t say that implicit biases and not-so-hidden issues are nonexistent.

Whether you’re the lone woman in a workplace made up entirely of men or you’re in a field that’s struggling to level the playing field, you may feel frustrated at best and defeated at worst.

I’m fortunate in that I work with a well-balanced team of women and men, but that’s not always the case for every professional woman. I may be one of the lucky ones, but I know plenty of women who aren’t, and I feel for them. I reached out and asked for their horror stories and survival tips.

What do you do when your co-workers and clientele are pigs?

It’s bad enough when some of your co-workers are low-key misogynists, but what do you do when your customers reek of sexism too?

Jane*, 23, was the first person to contact me with this:

“One word: GameStop.”

Jane’s been working at GameStop for several years, and has been at three different stores. The GameStop she currently works at is “the most pleasant,” and by that, she means “[there’s] still sexism, but it’s well-intentioned sexism.” She’s had to put up with dudebro customers who intentionally ignore her because she’s a girl and obviously, girls know nothing about video games. Even if they work at video game retailers.

Jane told me about slimy guys who could comment how she’s “too attractive” for gaming, to which she’d quickly reply “I also really like makeup and reading and hiking, in case you want to use other hobbies of mine to define me as a person.”

Her co-workers aren’t perfect, either. Jane mentioned how a previous co-worker was fired from his old job due to sexual harassment (yikes!); upon her first day as an experienced transfer, Jane’s scumbag manager handed her cleaning supplies because she is “an attractive female” and the store could’ve used “a woman’s touch.” Having plenty of experience under her belt, Jane flat-out refused and handed the supplies off to the actually untrained new guy.

When you’re dealing with dudebros on both sides of the counter, Jane gives this advice:

“[A] sharp tongue and a no bullshit attitude is a must for working at a place like that. The second you let those eggs paint you as a suPeR cHiLL gUyS’ GiRL who thinks it’s funny to make sandwich jokes and play into that role, you are disrespecting yourself and womankind and it opens a floodgate of sexual jokes and inappropriate behavior.”

In every industry, women are judged by their looks…

The STEM fields have put out the welcome mat for women and people of color. While there are plenty of scholarships and learning opportunities for a woman to get her foot in the door, once she actually enters the field, she may find herself under subtle scrutiny.

Grace, 22, spoke to me and shared her experiences as a biochemical research assistant. “One thing I loved about my lab was that we were the picture of cultural and racial diversity,” she said, dispelling one of the myths of medicine. However, Grace was one of two women out of 10 lab members – and both of the women were undergrads. She admitted that even though biomedical research is notorious for being a male-dominated STEM field, she never felt directly discriminated against.

Although Grace never felt explicit discrimination, she felt pressured to look a certain way because she was a woman amongst men. She mentioned that her co-workers’ cultural customs regarding female attire (wherein “the modesty of women’s attire is often regarded as tantamount to her purity and character”) impacted her clothing choices. Professional, lab-ready clothing was a must, but Grace admitted to choosing more modest outfits because she didn’t want to be judged, or looked at sexually.

I think all women can agree that we’re subject to stricter judgment with regards to how we dress for work. The word “professional” varies depending on your industry, gender, and even your race. Grace gave me some great advice for any working woman:

“I would recommend keeping it professional as needed, but beyond that to just dress how SHE likes to dress. It takes bravery to truly implement the ‘So what if they look? mentality in your life, but it is not our job to preclude all temptation for the men around us.”

…and their experience.

Grace also confided that as one of two undergrad women, she noticed that “it was more common for senior lab members to assume [she] didn’t know how to perform a task or calculation than it was for them to assume the same for [her] male counterpart.” She admitted that while she had a lot to learn in her first research role, her male co-worker had the same level of experience as she did.

This issue may be particularly highlighted in STEM fields, but we can easily inject ourselves into the situation. Grace imparted some solid advice for women in all areas:

“For women faced with similar issues of co-workers assuming they don’t know how to do their job, I would encourage open communication about what you do and don’t know. If someone is talking to you like you don’t know something when you do, speak up and say that they don’t need to explain. If someone offers to do something for you because they think you don’t know how (rather than out of kindness), let them know that you can do it.”

But what if you really don’t know how to do something?

“Ask if you can assist somehow or at least observe, so that you can do it yourself next time. Nobody should feel shy to ask for help at work, but sometimes to be recognized for your full independence and breadth of knowledge, women need to speak up a little louder.”

What do you think?

Women working in every industry face struggles unique to them; put a woman in a male-dominated workplace, and the obstacles multiply. Your co-workers may be lewd, condescending, and critical in a way they wouldn’t be toward a male peer. Jane and Grace’s stories resonate with many women, regardless of whether they work in retail or in a lab, as stories like theirs can be found everywhere. Do you have any advice – or horror stories – to share? Go ahead and let it out in the comments below.

(*Name has been changed.)

Last modified on October 17th, 2017

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