6 tips for succeeding in male dominated industries (plus the power of mentoring)

Are you a female currently working in a male dominated industry who is looking for ways to get ahead or stand out from the crowd? We know it can be tough and we know our readers are seeking articles on mentoring and advice on how to succeed in the workplace so we thought we’d go straight to the top to get the best advice.

Sharon Warburton has been smashing glass ceilings in the two sectors with the lowest female participation rates (construction & mining) for more than 20 years. She is currently a CFO, a strategist, a Non-Executive Director and a Not ForProfit Director. She contributes her successes to hard work, cross cultural experience, great mentors and a powerful sponsor. She mentors many and is the founder of the online mentoring site www.steelheels.com.au (@Steel__Heels).

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Sharon says there are 6 things everyone woman should strive for to become successful in their industry, and she has made them all C words to make them easy to remember. She says:

1. Confidence

Firstly, and in my opinion most importantly, Confidence.

We have to focus on increasing the self-confidence of women in the workplace. The literature says young girls graduate from high school full of confidence. Give them a few years of working in a male dominated environment and my experience is most of that self-confidence has evaporated. I encourage you, regardless of your role, to support the creation of mentors for women from the first day they enter the organisation.

If a mentor does nothing other than halt the evaporation of self-confidence then I believe you will see more women emerge through the ranks. I mentor a number of both men and women. Generally those women have issues with confidence. They are wary of setting goals high and question themselves at every turn. The males on the other hand are brimming confidence and want to formulate strategies to make their big dreams a reality.

Generally those women have issues with confidence. They are wary of setting goals high and question themselves at every turn.

I suspect many of you are familiar with the case studies that suggest that if a male can do 10 % of a job description they’ll apply, whereas if a woman can’t do at least 90 percent they won’t. Imagine if all the women who do this had the support of a mentor to help give them that confidence boost they need to ‘have a go’….

You might be wondering what Steel Heels is all about and why I have created such a a community . This is my personal commitment to increasing the self-confidence of working women. I encourage you to check out www.steelheels.com.au if you have not already done so.

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2. Courage

My second tip is be courageous. To quote Sheryl Sandberg:

“Have the courage to lean in and take a seat at the table.”

All very well, but what does this really mean? Well it means you need to have the courage to take risks and have a go. And the courage to speak up and be heard. My view is that when it comes to their careers, women are risk averse and in male dominated industries where it’s likely there are no female role models, this issue is magnified. Take it from a Chartered Accountant turned Strategist… take on a role outside of your area of technical expertise or comfort zone and if you need to, be the ground breaker. So what if you think you can’t do 90% – back yourself to learn the rest on the job. I had the courage to take risks, and I encourage you to do the same, particularly early on in your

Courage is most important when something is not right. If you’re stuck in a toxic or negative work environment it takes courage to get out. But the sooner you find this courage, the sooner you’ll find a place in a more positive, engaging environment. That is where I was when I was in the UAE. I made the move to make change and haven’t looked back since.

A mentor recently rang me in an anxious state because she was being asked to falsify an environmental report. I didn’t tell her what to do, she knew what she had to do about it but she needed support to find the courage to do so. Mentoring is invaluable in helping women dig deep to find the courage needed in tough situations.

3. Commitment

Like buying a puppy you are either in or out. There is no such thing as in between. If I gave up the first time a male colleague berated me or made me feel unwelcome, I would not be speaking to you today. On the face of it, I have shown I was thick skinned when often I have felt totally vulnerable. I’ve had to remind myself not to sweat the small stuff and to remained focus on the broader goal.

But commitment is not just about being resilient and giving it a go. It’s also about committing to making our industries and workplaces better. About chipping away at the behaviours and practices, which are less than ideal. Rome was not built in a day and the crusty old builders and miners aren’t going to change their entrenched behaviours or workplace cultures overnight, but we have come a long way and can continue to celebrate further improvements.

But commitment is not just about being resilient and giving it a go. It’s also about committing to making our industries and workplaces better. About chipping away at the behaviours and practices, which are less than ideal.

Having a mentor when you are in this environment is invaluable. They can encourage you to take the time to adjust, not to lose sight of your long term plan and goals and not to throw in the towel when change in not happening at the pace you perhaps first think it should.

I am watching (and supporting where I can) an amazing example of this at the moment. I met a lady who did it tough in her community for many years. She then decided to join up to a VTEC program with an aim to getting a job on the mines. And she succeeded. Now she is trying to make the transition from operator to supervisor and finding it hard. But she is not giving up. She is showing great commitment by reaching out for support and having another crack at moving to the next level. And she is grateful for people who are taking time out of busy schedules to offer support and encouragement. Imagine if all the women in our workplace felt they had this level of support to continue to commit when their short term outlook is hard.

4. ‘Can do’ attitude

When you focus on the positive, opportunities will reveal themselves. As I said before women question themselves at every turn. Their first response is often “I can’t” “I don’t” . We need to adjust this negative mindset and our vocabulary. To view new challenges, roles or volunteering as an opportunities to expand our experiences.

Mentors influence positive mindsets. They can encourage their mentees to give themselves licence to try new things. And to be the person who volunteers to give something new a go. It would have been so easy for me to say no when I was contacted about the FMG Non Executive Director role some 2 years ago now. It was not great timing – my daughter was only 3. My plan had been to wait until she was well settled in junior school before I began my transition to board roles.

My experience is that opportunities rarely, if ever, arise when you want them too. My attitude is to believe you ‘can do’ them then focus on working out the how. I accepted the FMG role in addition to my Exec role at BM and I have continued to maintain a very healthy ‘work / life balance’. Because I believed I could.

Shifting mindset and encouraging positivity are areas I often hear myself talking to mentees about. And it is amazing to share in their energy when they get into top gear. The positivity is infectious and for this reason alone I encourage all the leaders in this room today to do some mentoring.

5. Communication

A problem shared is a problem solved…..

Far too often I hear young women have resigned from the business. In addition to HR undertaking exit interviews I attempt to seek out these ladies and have a chat. More often than not they have been bottling up a raft of issues….. keeping them all to themselves. Then one day they wake up and determine it is just all too hard. So they go and find another job (usually in some project management firm in a desk based role) and resign.

Upon resigning they open up and tell me what has been bothering them. It’s rare that any of the concerns they raise couldn’t have been fixed earlier but often it’s a case of too little too late. I find it frustrating that still we find a culture in today’s male dominated industries where young women feel they have no-one to talk to.

I mentioned earlier than I support the identification of a mentor for women from day one of their careers. This would help encourage more open communication and enable us as leaders to address the concerns of today. To the women here today I encourage you to find someone in your organisation you can talk to about your concerns, fears and frustrations. If you can’t identify someone within your organisation then find someone externally.

To leaders focus on creating an environment where any member of your team, regardless of seniority, feel they can approach you. We hear about ‘open door policies’ all the time but do we actually do it or just talk about it?

You don’t want me to start on the gender pay gap, but I will say this. There are so many things that employers, especially in WA, should be doing to eliminate this gap. However females need to take the lead too by finding their voice (and again some courage) to say what you are worth and asking for that pay rise. Negotiate hard and if you are feeling nervous, get support from your mentor.

There are so many things that employers, especially in WA, should be doing to eliminate this [gender pay] gap. However females need to take the lead too by finding their voice (and again some courage) to say what you are worth and asking for that pay rise.

I appreciate that speaking up is not always easy in a room full of male builders or miners. But mentors can provide tips on how to speak up, how to not be afraid to ask questions and to share what has worked best for them. I often take internal mentees with me to some meetings so they can see how I lean in. For one of my more introverted female mentees support in this area has been invaluable and she has found her voice and is kicking goals as a result.

6. Creativity

My final tip is be creative. Invest in yourself and make your own luck. As I have already said it is very likely in today’s male dominated industries that you won’t have female role models in the jobs you aspire to do in the short to medium term. But I always viewed this as an opportunity. And there remains lots of great opportunities for talented driven women.

I encourage my mentees to identify roles that interest them within their organisations and to pursue them. And if nothing appeals, to create a role. Many years ago I was offered a role in another company not long after joining Multiplex. I joined Multiplex in an accounting role and I was bored with accounting. So I met with my boss and said I wanted to move out of accounting, saw an area of opportunity and put a role description on the table for what I wanted to do.

Essentially I created a new role supporting the Deputy CEO. I called it General Manager – Operations Support, Mergers & Acquisitions. Notwithstanding that I had a fallback position of an interesting role with another company I was committed to the business so I took the risk, adopted some creative thinking and put forward what I really wanted. The rest is history – that was the start of a successful career in strategy.

So there are my six tips – confidence, courage, commitment, ‘can do’, communication and creativity.

What are your best tips for working in a male dominated workplace? Tell us in the comments below!

Sharon Warburton by Shaun PattersonSharon Warburton is the founder of Steel Heels, the 2015 NAB Women’s Agenda Mentor of the Year and 2014 WA Telstra Business Woman of the Year. And most importantly, she is Mum to 5-year-old Chloe.



Photo credit: Telstra

5 replies on “6 tips for succeeding in male dominated industries (plus the power of mentoring)

  • Yvette Kwei

    Great article and fantastic tips Sharon. I’m originally from WA too. I’m in law and therefore in one of the most male dominated fields you can be in. I fought for 3 days paid maternity leave from my firm (which I was not entitled to because I was not a partner) and ended up starting my own firm after 8 years in law and 9 months of maternity leave. I haven’t looked back and cherish having work-life balance (by waking up at 5/5.30am too) and being able to spend meal times with my kids (and husband)! I particularly like your last point about Creativity, it’s important to think outside the box and be open to creating amazing opportunities! @MagnumIP

  • Leila

    Thank you Sharon for sharing this experience. I totally back you up on all six points, and I have seen than people are more prone to helping you if you’re helping yourself first. However I think there is a crucial question you’re not addressing here: we’ve all experienced that working hard isn’t enough, and that workplace is an unfair environment. Most of what will make you get promoted will be the ‘soft’ aspect: socialising, being liked and selling yourself.
    I worked for 3 years developing a beer brand in China and have indeed met many instances when my gender (and my origin – I’m a foreigner) was a barrier to work. The hardest part was: in the alcohol industry, most the business is done outside of the office. Meaning: you close deals in strip clubs, you close deals if you can drink more than your partner. Not a very nice feeling to be seating there with whiskey whilst a barely over-aged girl is pretending to have fun getting groped. But that’s what it took for partners to start collaborating with me and little by little I was able to change the way we did business together. I saw that it was more effective to change the business from inside, with a pragmatic and non-judgmental attitude. But to overcome the initial ‘handicap’ I needed to prove that I was… like a man. And still now I struggle not getting in drinking competitions to prove I have a seat at the table.
    To me this is the one really specific thing to working in male-dominated industries. Your article seemed more geared to working in a competitive environment – and, granted, most competitive environments are male-dominated.
    I would be quite interested to hearing a voice coming from countries where gender equality in society -let alone in workplace- is still a dream.

  • Barbara Krzywoszanski

    Fantastic article to maintain the momentum and encourage women to break into male dominated industries. As an entrepreneur who built a distribution network in the male-dominated firefighting industry, I do admit that it had its challenges. However, one of the most important points that I hope you include in any future articles is Education. Know your product. Know your industry and know what your customer (both internal and external customers) need to succeed. Your best ally in success is making sure you know more than your competitor and having the confidence to share it. I have found that knowledge feeds confidence. As women we should not be afraid to overstep boundaries in a male industry to be heard. We will undoubtedly and unfortunately receive the stereotypical feedback to our attitude (Does anyone hear the “B” word hanging around, the one that sounds like itch?). I turn that work in my other favorite B word – Brave! The biggest compliment I ever received was when the fire chief of a major municipality set me aside after a presentation and (very respectfully) told me that I had the biggest set of balls he’s ever seen. I quickly responded with, “I like them big like my diamonds and my heels.” We laughed, together, and he quickly became was one of my best clients.

  • Susan Weston

    Read your article all too quickly but now need to print it out to really dwell on the critical messages. Working in real estate as a leader of a business team of under 30’s is extremely challenging. Also to read your advices rom the perspective of an Australian business woman is energising and heart warming.. I have been I. The workforce for 40 years and for the most part have jumped into jobs which have captured my attention more that I could do them. I have always found ways through or people to help however I do think as you become older this is more of a challenge. Thanks

  • Bec @ The Plumbette

    Sharon I agree with what you’ve written. I think the biggest hindrance is confidence. It’s important to remember that no one is confident when they start on their first day, but for us women working in a male dominated field, we feel the pressure to perform well because it was hard yakka getting someone to give you a go in the first place. While my dad put me on as an apprentice, my apprentice years were working with other tradesman so I put pressure on myself to perform. What helped me is going to Tafe and seeing that the guys weren’t so confident either. We all start somewhere and confidence grows as we learn more on the job. The most important thing is to back yourself 100% and have friends and family or a support group that can encourage you when you feel down. For me, my husband was my cheerleader. The nights when I’d lay in bed and tell him that I wanted to quit he would remind me of my dreams and why I started in the first place.
    These points that you’ve written about should be put into a manifesto so women can look at it when they are finding it tough on the work site.

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