November 30, 2015
As a female executive field leader at a global financial services company, I’m frequently invited by businesses, women’s organizations, and educational institutions to share my story, experiences, and insights of successfully making my way in an industry that was, and has been, almost “exclusively male” since I began my career. And, without fail, the question I’m asked most frequently by early-career women, especially those about to transition from graduate school and step into that first or next-level career-guiding job, goes something like this: “Do you have any advice for someone going into the XYZ industry?” I understand what they’re really asking: “Can you tell me how to navigate the business waters of working in a male-dominated industry?” This what I tell them:
Be Yourself. Trust your skills, talents, values, and your desire to build the career and life you imagine. Don’t be afraid to go for what you want, and never, never sell yourself short or acquiesce to something lesser because you’re being told that’s what you should do. Don’t walk on eggshells, always do the right thing, never listen to naysayers, and trust your gut.
Don’t Act a Man. Many industries remain predominately male-centric. The mistake many young women make is to try out-man the men (this always reminds me of the padded shouldered, suit-and-tie women of the 1980s.) If you do, you will be seen as too aggressive, too tough, not feminine enough and it will inhibit your ability to build strong relationships and have your talents and successes recognized. It’s not right, and even though many men are working hard to change, that’s still the reality of it. You also can be penalized for being seen by men as “feminine,” meaning being too soft, not tough enough. This is part of the Double Bind women experience in the workplace. Experience taught me to overcome and to retool the competitive drive to prove myself by trying to out-man-the men; it’s a path to avoid. Have the confidence to be yourself.
Learn to communicate with men. Remember that men and women are different. Communicate in ways that allow a man to hear you, see you, and appreciate your talents. (Again, maybe not right, but that’s still the way it is.) Learn the general traits and communication styles men bring to the workplace. For instance, men tend to be rational, problem solve, see things as black & white, apply linear thinking, don’t ask questions, and put relationships and feelings aside when finding solutions. This often means you do not have to tell lots of back-story, the relationships involved, or some of the second or third levels of nuance and connections. My advice is to start with the end: “Here’s what needs to happen.” “Here’s the problem or issue.” If you have a solution, offer it. If you want him to do something, be prepared with the actions required: “I would like you to do A, B, C.” Men, generally, care less how a problem is solved than solving it efficiently and effectively. Men find problem solving as one way to demonstrate competence. (Hence, comes shorthand for one form of this: Mansplaining.) In conjunction, usually I already had a solution or suggestion at hand for any problem I was raising, which my manager would often then support or tweak and come to believe was his own, which further served to build the relationship and have my competence noticed.
When, I learned to trust myself and to approach men in ways that were familiar and natural to them, my relationship with men improved dramatically, my insights and suggestions were welcomed and sought, and my career path opened in ways that I’d never imagined.
There’s much more to say about the above, especially the Double Bind and the scope of the general differences between men and women. Given that, I don’t want you to believe that I place the entire onus for change on women. I absolutely do not. The above are key lessons I learned to create my career in a male-dominate industry. This assumes, naturally, that you work hard, meet deadlines, do great work, and push for stretch assignments (which is a topic for another time).
As for changing the status quo, I work directly with male leaders to have them recognize and appreciate the difference between men and women. We are equal, but different. I present a strong business case for women and diversity as marketplaces become more women-centric and more diverse generally. My goal is to have leaders and decision makers recognize that these differences are the difference-maker to business success and organizational culture change. While change unfolds, I still rely on the few tricks I learned early in my career. I know they can help you, too.
Lisa Cregan is Managing Director, Mid-Atlantic Regional Director, Morgan Stanley Wealth Management. She has more than 30 years of financial services field experience and has been a champion of and trendsetter for women since she entered the industry. Lisa holds a BA and MBA from Georgetown, sits on the board of The Women’s Sports Foundation, and brings her practial and inspiration insights on women & change to groups nationwide.