Behind The Numbers

4 Proven Ways Women in Male-Dominated Fields Can Establish Themselves and Feel Fulfilled at Work

The gender gap in technical professions is wide, but when companies aren't working to close it, women can take steps to try to change the culture.
4 Proven Ways Women in Male-Dominated Fields Can Establish Themselves and Feel Fulfilled at Work
Image credit: Gary Burchell | Getty Images
Entrepreneur Staff
7 min read

Each edition of this Women Entrepreneur series, Behind the Numbers, presents a stat about a disadvantage women face at work and in business, examines the dynamics at play and provides guidance to help women overcome obstacles.

There are all kinds of initiatives to get more girls interested in STEM careers from an early age, but despite these efforts, the gender breakdown of engineering graduates is 80 percent men, 20 percent women. Then, once they get the diploma in hand, nearly half of this already disproportionately small group of women don’t stick with the profession. A mere 13 percent of working engineers are women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Various research has revealed that men leave the engineering field at half the rate women do, and a similar pattern exists in other technical fields. Fifty-six percent of women working in informational technology leave the field when they reach mid-level, which is more than double the quit rate for men, reports a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy.

Every woman has her own reasons for selecting or deciding to leave a certain field, says Nadya Fouad, a counseling psychologist, professor and researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. After studying census data over the past three decades (from 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010), Fouad has concluded that women have neither entered nor stayed in the engineering occupation at increased rates.

Her findings prompted a research project, starting in 2008, to study the reasons why women (and men) engineering graduates call it quits. Unsurprisingly, Fouad discovered the “environment” is often the culprit for women.

“It's organizational,” Fouad says. “It's the bullying supervisor, it's the incivility, it's the lack of advancement opportunities, it's a lack of investment in the employees and training and development.” What it isn’t, she says, is any fault of women. It’s not that they lack sufficient confidence or interest, or that they’re preoccupied with family needs.

A study by the Society of Women Engineers found that men and women are dissatisfied with the field for the same reasons, and that bureaucracy, hierarchy and a lack of effective communication skills within organizations are more likely to prompt women to leave the job than men.

It seems that relationship-building isn’t necessarily an antidote for these organizational issues. Fouad says that she’s been unable to pinpoint mentorship, or lack thereof, as a factor that indicates whether someone stays in or leaves the engineering field. But that could be because so few people in the field have mentors to begin with, as she says she found in her research. In one study that Fouad cited, less than a quarter of people who stayed in the field had a mentor. But, on the flipside, less than a quarter of people who left had a mentor. But, she says, that doesn’t mean that such relationships -- especially when they form informally and organically -- don’t have the potential to help people thrive in their careers.

Given all of these systemic factors, Fouad highlights a handful of strategies women can employ to make male-dominated or technical fields more hospitable and fulfilling -- all with the caveat that it might require getting out of your comfort zone, which of course is easier said than done.

“Companies need to be held accountable for how many women are getting promoted, how many women are getting hired, how many people of color are getting promoted?” Fouad says. “And yet, we still have all these women and people of color working in these environments, and they need to have strategies to be successful in those environments. I think it would be naive to say well, just wait until they fix the climate. You do have to empower women.”

1. Self-promote.

It’s a delicate balance of “putting your head down and doing the work that will deserve to get recognized,” Fouad says, and lifting your head up to seek recognition for the work you’ve done. Patting yourself on the back or nudging someone else to acknowledge what you’ve done can feel uncomfortable, but if you feel as though you’re not being considered for advancement opportunities at work, it’s a necessary evil.

Fouad refutes Facebook COO’s argument from her 2012 book, Lean In that if you lean in and take on more opportunities, you will be recognized. “Well, the reality is, maybe not,” Fouad says. “What women can do is, they can create networks and seek ways that others will provide a system of recognition that they can then be part of.” That might take the form of women acknowledging their colleagues’ accomplishments to try and foster “an environment where recognition is expected and shared,” Fouad says.

See this previous edition of Behind the Numbers on establishing allies for in-depth tips, as well as this one on seeking feedback.

2. Make others mindful of how recognition gets allocated.

If you have a say over which projects you’re a part of or which assignments you take on, think about which ones will get you the most visibility and recognition. You might find that tasks focused on proactive problem-solving aren’t celebrated as much as reactive ones. As Fouad puts it, everyone needs to pay attention to what gets reinforced within an organization. “There are a lot of rewards and a lot of recognition for the guys who ride to the rescue at 3 o'clock in the morning,” she says, “but often, women are working really hard to prevent the kinds of catastrophes that needed a 3 o'clock ride to the rescue.”

3. Be your authentic self at work.

As part of a recent study, Fouad and her colleagues added a text field at the end of a questionnaire for participants with the prompt, “is there anything else you want us to know?” One comment that resonated with Fouad, who is an avid football fan, was one about the expectation that women, because they’re in a non-traditional field, will have traditionally male hobbies -- or that they won’t, simply because of their gender. Assumptions go both ways: They may be looped into conversations they aren’t interested in, or left out of ones they are interested in.

Fouad explains the concept of “psychological safety” as, “your ability to be your authentic self in the workplace and feeling safe to do that.” If you unabashedly let your colleagues know, “I’m a huge Packers fan!” at the water cooler, you might make personal connections that will make you feel more at home at work.

“It was very socially saving in those environments that I could have those I could participate in those conversations,” Fouad says of her own experiences chatting with co-workers about her favorite sport. But conversely, don’t fake it, or you’ll grow resentful and internally isolated in the work environment: “I know other women who've been angry that they were expected to,” Fouad says.

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