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Leading as a Woman in a Male-Dominated Field

by Tracy L. Mack-Askew, Managing Director, Heavy Duty Vocational Truck Platform10/30/2017
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It’s not easy being a female leader in a male-dominated field.  You may feel like the deck is stacked against you.  However, I’m here to tell you, you can achieve your dreams of greatness in your chosen field, even if you happen to be one of the few women in that area. 

I know the many pitfalls that you either worry about or have faced, because I have been there. You worry that if you are perceived as too attractive your male counterparts may have more on their mind than business. You worry that if you aren’t part of the “Boys’ Club” you may not get the same opportunities for career growth.  You worry about double standards – balancing being “too nice” with “too aggressive.” You worry about men taking credit for your ideas -- saying the same thing you said in a slightly different way during meetings -- or being ignored altogether.  You worry about people assuming that you don’t deserve to be there, that you are some quota filler, and you’re not worthy. 

You know what, I’m here to tell you that YOU ARE WORTHY!  Don’t let others’ insecurities turn into your own self-doubt.  I have learned quite a few things along the way to share with you, including strategies and techniques I’ve learned to be successful and get through challenging times in a male-dominated field.

One of the most important strategies that I use is to manage myself, because in order to lead effectively, you must first lead yourself and lead yourself well.  This is no simple task. 

Be Yourself

Being yourself sounds easy, but practical application is always more complicated than theory. Here’s one example of when I missed the mark. I’ve been blessed to have several amazing mentors in my career.  One of those mentors encouraged me to play golf and Texas Hold ‘Em for social opportunities with my professional network. One weekend evening, at a poker tournament with work colleagues who were also each other’s friends, the drink of choice was beer. I personally don’t like the taste of beer, but I asked my mentor what type of beer I should choose. I was the only woman invited to the poker tournament, and only one of two people that were not yet at the management level at that time.  I definitely wanted to fit in.  The other aspect of the game was that the entry fee to the tournament was $100 which was painful for me to pony up (and lose) at the time. Both of these things contributed to my discomfort during the tournament. I ended up grabbing a Labatt’s Blue, but barely sipped any of it all night. At some point, one of the executives playing commented that I’d had the same exact bottle of beer the entire night. Even they could tell that beer was not what I genuinely wanted to drink. Please hear what I am saying: pretending to be something that you’re not isn’t fooling anyone. It is better to be genuinely you. Being yourself will project more confidence and gain your colleagues’ trust.

Now, well over a decade later, instead of making myself uncomfortable, I just decline beer and do my best not to spend money that I can’t afford to lose. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be open to trying new things, but don’t pretend to be something that you truly are not. Interestingly enough, my male counterpart, who was also being mentored by the same executive, ended up getting a job offer as a direct result of that very poker tournament. He had played very well and truly connected with the other players in a way I could not when I was trying to pretend to be someone I’m not.

There were times later on in my career where I was very genuine, and it worked well for me.  One of these times was while I was leading the engineering department at Thomas Built Buses, a Daimler Trucks North America company. I received anonymous feedback through a Great Place to Work (GPTW) survey that my recent hiring of a few women had rubbed some team members the wrong way – presumably they considered it reverse discrimination. This feedback felt like a sucker punch in my gut. I had been actively recruiting and had hired three amazing engineering women from the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) conference – two happened to be African-American and one was Asian. The GPTW feedback left me wrought with mixed negative emotions and looking for a way to deal with my own internal pain. 

I chose to be genuine to myself in the hiring of these people, and I decided I would also stay true to myself in addressing the team’s concerns. I went to the team of managers and supervisors reporting to me and broached a very open and transparent conversation with them. I empathetically informed them that I wasn’t here to lead only the “diverse” members of my department but all the members of my department, and my actions showed it. I would spend time routinely engaged and walking around the department, talking with my entire staff, encouraging open communication, and seeking to ensure that people’s voices were heard. I worked tirelessly to remove roadblocks and enable them to successfully deliver on their assignments. I lead my department with both compassion and high performance expectations. I was very genuine and authentic, and my department flourished. My team at TBB went from being demoralized to performing, and in two years, our department’s GPTW scores went from an average of 63 to an average of 80 (where 100 is the best score). During this time, I was my authentic self and was able to see the benefits manifest themselves in my department.

Self-Leadership

Being a great leader begins with self-awareness. You must know your strengths and weaknesses to be self-aware.

In order to begin self-leadership, I recommend that everyone first conduct a self-assessment of their own strengths and weaknesses, analogous to a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis for a person instead of a business unit. Then get input from others you work with regularly through a 360-review. This is where you assess yourself with certain questions and your peers, superiors, and direct/indirect reports also assess you. This is a very good tool to help you discern whether different levels have different perspectives of you, and what you need to work on improving specifically with each group. 

Take the time to reflect on where you are strong and where you aren’t, actually write it down. Going through these exercises will help validate your strengths so you can focus your attention on them, find areas for improvement, and identify your weaknesses. Knowing your weaknesses can inform your decisions, for example, in the case of hiring. Hiring others who are strong in the areas you are weak in gives you an opportunity to fill your blind spots.  In order to excel, you and your team need different strength areas to have a comprehensive and holistic view.

Being a Woman

Being a woman in a male-dominated field is tough.  My male counterparts typically don’t have stereotypes stacked against them when they show up on day one for their new job.  I often say if the men had to do what we have to do in heels all day, they wouldn’t survive. (It’s both the metaphoric high heels and the physical high heels.) It’s doing more inside the home. It’s waking up earlier to do your makeup and hair. It’s making sure that you exude executive presence, while still being approachable.

As women in a male-dominated field, we are as tough as nails. My entire career I’ve had to work smarter, be more diligent, perform better, take on more secondary and tertiary activities, juggle more, all while enduring the double standard of appearance and doing more inside the home. Couple that with having to prove that I’ve earned my stripes. Prove that the stripes weren’t given to me for any reason other than I deserved them.

It’s daunting and exhausting, but when you look at all that you have accomplished, it can be very gratifying at the same time. When you reflect on what you are able to achieve, contributing more, accomplishing more, you know that very few people can do what you do. This “burden” can also be a source of pride and strength. It can continue to recharge you and to motivate you to go further and continue pressing to achieve even more. I’m suggesting that you take what others have meant for your downfall (advertently or inadvertently), and turn it into fuel for achieving your aspirations. Turn it around for your good.

In the essence of time, I will leave you with this final thought: believe in yourself! Do an amazing job and your results will speak volumes. You can successfully lead as a woman in a male-dominated field.

Tracy L. Mack-Askew Managing Director, Heavy Duty Vocational Truck Platform

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