It’s quite natural, this desire to fit in. There are so many psychological benefits to being not just part of the crowd but accepted by the crowd. When you fit in somewhere, you acquire a sense of belonging and there are few things better than feeling like your presence is desired somewhere. We conform to a number of social expectations in order to fulfill our desire to be accepted.
As a woman who works in a male dominated field, I can understand how a woman might feel pressured to be “down with the squad” in order to conform to a work or study environment. There are tangible rewards to fitting in. You enjoy coming into work or class more, you feel supported by a community. When a hire-up is looking for someone to lead a project or a group it’s the person that has captured the admiration of your superior that gets the role. The person who has captured your bosses attention is the person that has gotten around the office a lot or connected with the boss and colleagues on shared interests. This is easier to achieve when you’re with the in crowd.
Being a woman in an environment where your job is the only thing you have in common with the people around you can make you feel as if you’re on the outskirts. Being in that position can foster feelings of isolation, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Here is how I've made a way for myself in a predominately male space without having to put on a performance or downplay my femininity.
Your Work Will Speak for Itself
This is rarely true in our personal lives, but when it comes to work, men are extremely simple. Men will judge and respect you based off your skill and ethic. Your work will speak before you do and as long as you do what you do well, there will always be an opportunity for you to make your mark in a space that wasn’t designed with you in mind. Make it a point to study hard and develop your skills to a point where you stand out for them.
Not only does this help when finding a job, but it allows you more freedom. When your existence in a space is all it takes to make you stand out, everything you do wrong becomes amplified and everything you do average will leave you invisible. When you stand out and your work ethic and skills are commendable, you put yourself in a magical position that allows doors to open for you. You become an archetype unto yourself and your image and likeness become associated with your capabilities. Nothing about your skirts, bright pastels, long nails, or fitted pantsuits appear as detractors from your work or a distraction from something you’re trying to hide.
A lot of people view being a mascot for one’s ethnicity or sex as a burden and I can understand why that is, but when it comes to things that are out of my power, I prefer to just focus on what I can control. Hundreds of thousands of people are already having conversations about pigeonholing women, and minorities into unfair character traits. I can amplify the voices I agree with, with my money and support so that I can focus on my own battles.
When you’re a woman in a male dominated space your very existence is in and of itself a power move and you don’t have to play down your femininity for acceptance. In fact, I encourage you not to. For starters, everyone finds femininity pleasant and it will only boost your appeal. Secondly, you shouldn’t have to contort and adjust your personality to fit in while Kevin gets to show up in the same sauce stained sweats he’s been wearing for the past 3 days while streaming to twitch on the job and never receiving any backlash for it. So, just work hard and watch yourself become an asset.
Find a Mentor
As a woman in a male dominated field, you will already stand out and you can use this to your advantage when it comes to finding a mentor. Mentors are the people that will help you establish a familiar presence where it counts at your company, organization, or school. When I was younger, I didn’t always give much thought to who I wanted as a mentor, but now that I've been around the block a bit, I’ve come to realize that picking your mentor is very important.
Who they are and who they associate with will rub off on you and your image. Their circle becomes your circle in a sense and if your mentor is someone who’s been with the company a while but is looking for an exit, not at all fulfilled in their work, then you’re cutting yourself short. The mentor-mentee relationship is a valuable one that can make your assimilation into a work environment really rewarding or a little bumpy. Look for the person who comes in dressed nicely, is early, seems to know everyone at the office and is in good standing and ask if they would be your mentor.
It’s unfortunate, but when you’re a woman in a boys club, guys can be very nervous with making a business move on you. They might worry about working in close proximity to you for fear of some misunderstanding. This is unfair and can limit your movement, but just take the edge off of things. It’s important to pick and choose your battles especially in a professional environment and instead of harboring feelings of resentment for being limited in scope due to some irrational fear, you can just clear the air by opening a professional line of communication.
Make it known that you are seeking their council specifically. And while it might not be common to find women in male dominated places and even less common to find them in positions of power, the industry is changing and you can more than likely find a woman to act as your mentor. It’ll cut out so much unnecessary awkwardness.
Play Up Your Femininity
It might appear counter intuitive to play up what makes you different in an environment where you stand out, but it can work to your advantage. I remember when I was a freshman in college and a senior gave me a bit of advice that I swear by. She said that sometimes the only difference between you not getting the grade and someone else getting the grade is simply them asking for those few extra points.
We were discussing how some students finesse a 90% ‘A’ grade when you know they were at an 88% or 89%. Sometimes the decisions by those in positions of authority all come down to some superfluous detail. You won’t always be the best at what you do, so if work ethic won’t differentiate you from another colleague because you’re are both the same in that way, then perhaps the fact that you make the company look more diverse will.
Everybody uses their privileges to their advantage. Use yours. Most light skinned women aren’t going to bat for dark skinned women, most white people are still using whatever bit of racist power they can muster to feel like they're irrational concerns are relevant, and men aren’t just handing women equality. Everybody is taking what they can get, and running with it. Do. The. Same. And don’t ever feel guilty about any of it. But when you use your privileges to get ahead, make sure you make space for others like you, and do it in a manner such that those coming after you won’t have to jump through the same ridiculous loops you might have.
Adding on to all of that is the effects that a feminine presence has on men and women alike. There is something disarming, charming, pleasant, and attractive about a woman who just has herself together. Many of my girl crushes are all women that ooze this seductive feminine energy and I emulate it in order to receive the benefits that they receive from playing up their femininity. People are more welcoming to feminine presences, it captures someone’s attention, it's easier to navigate through spaces, and it feels good! I love sweatpants just as much as the next girl, but I love skirts and blouses too.
Personal branding is important when it comes to working in corporate environments. Being a woman in a predominately male space makes you stand out and there are ways to make the extra attention work in your favor. Maintaining your femininity in these spaces not only allows you to change the face of what being a doctor, software engineer, or the boss looks like by normalizing the presence of the feminine in these spaces, but it can work to your advantage by casting you in a more approachable light.
Every man, woman, and child enjoys the presence of femininity in their spaces so if you’re a bit more feminine than everyone around you there’s no need to play those facets of yourself down. They are no longer a deterring force nor should they ever be again. So come as you are. You and all your femininity are enough as is.
Lilith is a blogger with an emphasis in writing and reflecting upon social agendas that effect black women. When not at her computer writing she is more than likely still at her computer, programming. On the rare occasion that Lilith isn't at her laptop you can attempt to find her exploring the Chicago food scene or attending workshops in creative writing