The challenges and opportunities for Women in a male dominated industry
At a recently concluded leadership engagement I had the opportunity to engage with aspiring high potential women at a leading engineering company.
Interacting with them reminded me of my days as a young sales executive. Almost 2 decades ago, I had joined Schindler, an elevator and escalator company as their first female employee in sales and project management. Needless to say, the entry barriers in an all male territory were very high. There was scepticism and sarcasm of all kinds, leaving me to question my decision on several occasions. In the initial days, I must have looked like a deer in the headlights, with fear and self doubt looming large on my mind. Sensing my plight, an elderly male client of mine, counselled me that sales of an engineering product was not for women and I should actively consider a job change. With no diversity and inclusion initiatives to lean on, the journey was difficult but an equally enriching one. As I look back I can say with certitude that those 6 years were the best part of my professional career.
As I engage with engineering organizations as a leadership coach, its heartening to see the concerted efforts being made by them to attract, retain and grow women leaders as part of gender diversity initiatives. Over the last twenty years, the working climate has definitely become more conducive for women. However, women in male dominated industries such as engineering companies still continue to face greater hurdles than their counterparts in other sectors such as IT, BPO and BFSI. Some biases may have shifted to more subtler forms but can still be challenging to deal with on a continuous basis.
The challenges, to name a few:
- Women find it difficult to keep long hours and feel their male colleagues are better appreciated for their hard work. “I want to tune off after I leave office but this has an adverse impact. My boss is positively biased towards my colleague because he is always available,” complained a young woman unsure of what she should do.
- · They rarely receive direct and constructive feedback from their managers. Many male managers have never worked with women before and are naturally very awkward in their interactions. A young engineer in one of my sessions, shared her upset when a feedback from her manager came through one of her colleagues.
- · Men are still wary of buying from a woman. Clients often feel the need to validate technical specifications with their male counterparts. I recall how a client, in a techno commercial negotiation meeting; kept looking expectantly over my shoulder in the hope that some ‘knowledgeable’ man had accompanied me since a woman was incapable of having such discussions. A young sales executive from field operations in Bangalore, felt her client was hesitant to engage in a tough negotiation in the fear that she may be brought to tears. She of course refuted it vehemently and continued the protracted negotiation with greater energy.
- · A woman who questions status quo is very often tagged as being aggressive. Being submissive and compliant is a conditioned expectation for most men and any change to this invites critical comments. When women stay true to their stereotype of being agreeable they run the risk of not being seen as a leader. This double bind is more pronounced for women in teams where the gender ratios are skewed.
- · With the rising decibel levels on increasing gender diversity, peers feel they are getting preferential treatment. Upgraded accommodation and travel for reasons of safety; are being seen as unfair privileges; sparking sarcastic comments.
- · A low gender balance creates an unequal environment. Women feel the added pressure to be recognized for their accomplishments and be seen like their male counterparts. Many fear that even a slightest mistake would cast aspersions on their performance owing to their gender.
Surviving and thriving in male dominated industries is like a double edged sword- it can be challenging but also presents a tremendous opportunity for learning and growth. With the qualities of diligence, people management, win-win solutions that come naturally to them, they are in an advantageous position to gain a step up. A woman hire in the site installation team received generous compliments for coping with a physically demanding job. She spoke with quiet confidence that demonstrated her readiness to handle its complexity. Having seen her on the job, her manager’s initial apprehension turned to glowing appreciation for her commitment and ability to multitask. The pride in his voice was unmistakable.
I overheard a female engineer speak very proudly about how she had learnt to ignore some comments and carry on with confidence. Several of her colleagues nodded in admiration of her new found winning strategy.
What sets them apart is a certain mental resilience that is needed to go past barriers to prove their mettle. The trying circumstances, if one is able to tackle, accords a tremendous sense of accomplishment. It’s a high that makes the journey worthwhile.
As more women move into roles that are traditionally male oriented; they become exemplary role models, inspiring other women to bite the bullet. With diversity and inclusion initiatives priming the cultural environment; building a gender balanced workforce in such industries is not such a distant possibility.