Gender Bias

Women Entrepreneurs 2.0: What You'll Need to Thrive in a Male-Dominated Startup

Women Entrepreneurs 2.0: What You'll Need to Thrive in a Male-Dominated Startup
Image credit: Sangudo | Flickr

Women are taking on more roles at startups in the traditionally male-dominated industries of high tech, engineering and bio-technology. Yet we still have a ways to go. According to a recent survey, nearly 40 percent of women with engineering degrees leave the profession or never even enter it. Silicon Valley, despite its recent push to change its own "women problem," has been criticized for still lacking in gender diversity. In most of these companies, males in technical positions outnumber females by more than four to one.

Related: What This Female CEO Learned About Gender Bias After Pitching 200 VCs

Luckily, for the past couple of years, there has been a groundswell effort to attract more women and bring more balance. Thanks to efforts by big-name technology companies, programs in schools and even games, like GoldieBlox and Roominate, that are geared toward young girls, more women are making a turn to consider high-tech careers as an option.

I myself was fortunate to be raised without certain gender-role beliefs. Growing up, I had a “We Can Do Anything” Barbie game complete with a doctor Barbie and a ballerina Ken doll. I also had female role models in school, including chemistry and calculus teachers who encouraged us girls to pursue math and engineering studies in college. During my own college experience, my field of study was equally balanced between males and females.

So I felt deeply supported in my venture into science and engineering. But since then, I have had to adapt to my (today somewhat less but) still male-dominated industry. Along the way, I've picked up some wisdom about what women need to do to thrive in these diversity-starved startups.

Don't be shy about leading the way.

While there is a shift under way, and some notable women have been making waves in male-dominated industries for some years now, it can still be a challenge to establish female leadership in these careers. I was fortunate to join a startup early in my bio-tech engineering career that championed individual strengths over gender and welcomed me as a key member of a male-dominated working team.

Things haven't always gone smoothly. I have been in situations with bosses, co-workers, and vendors where women were expected to play old-fashioned, traditional roles and were treated as such. I didn’t realize the impact or existence of such workplaces until I experienced a work environment where gender wasn’t a factor and where my female perspective on problem-solving was appreciated. How unfortunate that this mentality still exists, but I'm glad that I've learned the following six traits women entrepreneurs need to not just survive but thrive in male-dominated industries and, specifically, startups:

1. Be strong.

Put yourself and your ideas out there. Women tend to underestimate their own performance, but confidence is a must. So, set that trail ablaze with confidence and know that it’s all right to be wrong or fail sometimes; just don’t dwell on it. Also recognize that people around you will unfortunately, whether on purpose or unknowingly, treat you as if they undervalue you. You have to know, and believe, you are important. Sometimes you will be your only cheerleader.

Related: Do Women Leaders Walk a Tightrope to Be Seen as Effective and Likable? 

2. Be aware.

Always maintain an awareness of your workplace environment, but be careful not to make false assumptions. Especially in today’s forward-thinking high-tech companies, people tend to be focused on working together to create something remarkable. Most startups have realized that diverse teams foster creativity, profitability and different, sometimes more efficient, approaches to challenges. In a fast-paced, less diverse environment where the staff is lean, it may be hard to realize that an imbalance exists in the way employees are treated. One reason for this is that startups are unique environments: Their working conditions are decidedly non-"corporate." So, pay attention, be aware of the differences and decide if the environment is right for you.

3. Be flexible.

But also be authentic. Flexibility is a necessary trait not only to the startup environment, but to life in general. Yet while you're trying to be nimble and flexible, don’t lose sight of being true to yourself. Women tend to battle this tendency more than men: We're trying so hard to please everyone and take on more than we can truly handle, to show our competence. You have to find balance, though, between knowing when it’s time to shift gears and when you should fight for something you believe in. So, voice your beliefs, suggestions or opinions, and if there’s pushback, see if the team would be willing to try your approach for a set duration. If the goal is not achieved, be willing to shift gears.

4. Listen to your inner guidance.

Also trust in it. All too often, inner guidance is ignored simply out of fear. If that inner voice or gut feeling makes its presence known, take the time to examine what it’s trying to tell you. If things don't feel right, don’t do it. Women have good instincts and should use them.

5. Surround yourself with a positive, supportive team.

Build your "team" in both the workplace and beyond. A supportive team at work will champion your success and help fuel your creativity, but also keep you challenged in the appropriate moments, regardless of your gender. Outside the office, surrounding yourself with positive people will support your confidence and keep you grounded. Recognize when you are not being valued and when others may be trying to make you feel inferior. The key is to make sure you are in an environment where you can succeed.

6. Level the playing field (in your own mind).

Be aware of your internal dialogue. It can be easy to inadvertently favor one opinion over another based on gender. Be sure you aren’t perpetuating gender roles internally. Also, women should support other women in the workplace. Rather than tearing each other down or giving higher credence to one gender over another, adopt an egalitarian mentality. Remember, a rising tide lifts all boats. So, champion good ideas and jobs well done whether they originate from a man, a woman, a subordinate, a superior or you yourself.

By bringing these six traits to the workplace, and perhaps learning from my experiences, you can thrive in the startup environment. You will be more aware of when your role is being manipulated, and more confident in establishing leadership roles in any startup environment.

Remember: Most of these companies are looking for diversity. There is tremendous value and profitability in bringing different points of view, perceptions and approaches to the various challenges that come with startups. So don’t be afraid to be bold and confident in your abilities, and let womanly intuition and passion guide you.

Related: Do Women Leaders Walk a Tightrope to Be Seen as Effective and Likable?