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Women in Business: Starting a Career in a Male Dominated Industry

Posted on July 15 2015 | Author: Michelle Kienitz

At my first agricultural event a few years ago, I couldn’t help by but hum a song from my childhood: “One of these things is not like the others, which one is different, do you know….”. And much like the Sesame Street song, in a male-dominated industry the focus is on the odd one out, not the many that are the same.

With an outward facing role, roughly 85% of my meetings are with men, and most entrepreneurs in the agri-technology industry are also men (similar to tech start-ups: 89%)[i]. Increasing the amount of women in STEM jobs has been a hot topic for several years, and the numerous articles on the dearth of women leading start-up companies continuously overpopulates my LinkedIn feed; but this is my first attempt to tackle the subject from my own perspective: working in an environment that is heavily represented by one gender.

Being a woman in a male-dominated industry comes with drawbacks, but there are also a lot of benefits. The single biggest thing I have learned about being a woman in agriculture and agri-technology: It is a positive, not a negative; there is a spotlight on me, and when my performance excels, my spotlight appears bigger and brighter. The following 5 topics are issues I have dealt with early in my career. Dealing with these issues I have sought advice, read the LinkedIn articles, and done a lot of introspection.


1. Dealing With Negativity

Avoid being easily offended. While working with mostly men, I have heard my fair share of disgusting stories and negative or degrading comments, been overlooked for happy hour drinks with the guys, and been asked to “forgive my language” often enough to last a lifetime. Initially, some of these things were offensive, and if I’ve heard it enough in a day, it still can be.

Having a strong sense of self will help you react positively in these situations rather than defensively. It is easy for women to get pushed out of the social group or to be excluded. Instead of being excluded, you can share a story or invite other coworkers to drinks.

A strong sense of self allows negative situations or comments to slide off your back.  Understanding your capabilities, weaknesses, your approach to work, life and relationships, and your motivations will help you react and deal with situations in an authentic way. Resiliency comes from accepting yourself and helps you navigate trying situations.


2. Importance of Authenticity

Each situation will be different, but in every situation I always try to be myself. Authenticity is important when building credibility and relationships; don’t attempt to alter your personality to fit into other’s perceptions or to emulate your male counterparts.[ii] Moving up in an organization, and continued success depends on looking and acting like a leader, and on being perceived as having a professional presence. [iii] Enable others to see the value of differences, by leveraging a perspective that is uniquely feminine while professional.


3. Find a Role Model

Early in your career it is helpful to have a few advisors who are further in their respective careers. They can help you navigate issues that might arise, and they are very helpful for bouncing ideas off of. The need for advisors and mentors doesn’t deplete as your career progresses, but the nature of the relationship will most likely change.

Find a sponsor within your company, someone in leadership whose perspective you trust, and who will help pull you up to promotions and new projects.  Male or female, the sponsor will help you build your career. A female mentor outside of your company is valuable for getting feedback on issues that might uniquely affect women, and for a positive professional female association. No matter where you end up professionally, surrounding yourself with people you can count on, gender aside, is key to great results and enjoying your work.


4. Dress Code

The 9-5 attire can be frustrating for women who enjoy colour and personality in their wardrobe.  When it comes to choosing attire that fits your personality or fits with corporate culture, many women are conforming to the traditional power suit colours, grey, black and navy. Depending on my audience in a particular day, I monitor what I am wearing and dress according to the culture of the company with whom I am meeting. Professionalism trumps personality, but personality can always be expressed in professional work wear. Don’t be afraid of colour.

There are times when choosing a little bit of colour can be an asset. At an industry event where there is a sea of grey, black, and navy, adding colour to your wardrobe can help you stand out in the crowd. I believe that as women have flooded the workforce it has opened up the colour palette available to men. Don’t be afraid of colour, women have traditionally worn more colour than men, and the corporate uniform is based on the male standard.


5. Learn From Others

There are a plethora of books, blogs and bios focusing on the struggles of women in the workforce. Pick some that speak to your needs, your industry, and your demographic. Their stories aren’t words to live by; instead they are a guideline for finding your own way. Find what works for you – women aren’t all the same.

When I meet women who have succeeded and survived in a heavily skewed male-industry, they all possess one quality, they are not intimidated by their male counterparts, at least not on the surface.  So this post is aimed at young women entering the workforce, or for the women who, like me, sometimes forget, as you excel, the spotlight on you appears brighter and bigger. It’s a spotlight that you can use to your advantage, and it’s an asset that none of your male colleagues can inherently have.

Michelle Kienitz
Manager, Strategic Partnerships

[1] How to Enter a Male-Dominated Industry As a Woman, Everyday Feminism
[2] When competing in a male-dominated field, women should ‘man-up’. Fortune.com
[3] The Authenticiy Trap for Workers Who Are Not Straight, White Men, Harvard Business Review Online.

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