Cracking the Glass Ceiling- How to Thrive as a Female in a Male-Dominated Industry

Regardless of your politics, Hillary Clinton has become the first woman to capture a major-party nomination for President. In a big first for American politics, 96 years after women won the right to vote, a woman is in the running to become president. CRACK!!!

This first is just one of many firsts for women recently:

  • Janet L. Yellen became the first female Chair of the Federal Reserve Board
  • Becky Hammon became an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs—the NBA’s first full-time female coach and the first full-time female coach in any of the four major professional sports in America
  • Admiral Michelle Howard became the Navy’s first female and first female African-American four-star officer
  • Mary Barra is the first female CEO of General Motors and the first female CEO of a major automaker
  • Racer Danica Patrick became the first woman to lead a lap in the Daytona 500, leading for five laps and finishing eighth overall

As women in the tech industry, we may not be first, but we’re making cracks in the glass ceiling every day working in what is still a male-dominated industry. This means that every day, we need to find ways to be heard, be successful, and be leaders.

So, how do you lead when you’re the only woman in the room? As I look back at my career, most of my time was spent on teams in which males significantly outnumbered the females and, more often than not, I was the only female. Along the way, I learned (sometimes the hard way) what to do and what not to do to lead in these situations:

1. Don’t Make It Weird

Don’t fixate on the fact that you’re the only woman in the room. If you do, it makes things weird and you and everyone else will be uncomfortable. Remember that you are there for a reason. Recognize what you bring to the table and then use that to own your place in the room and on the team.

When I was working at an early-stage startup a couple of years ago, I was the only woman in the company (okay, we were only four people, but still). As we headed toward the release of our beta product, we met weekly to talk about the product. At first, I felt very out of place in those meeting because much of the discussion was highly technical, such as the merits of various open-source software we could use to develop the platform. However, as the conversation turned to the user experience, I immediately realized that this was the reason I was there. Advocating for the best user experience and being the voice of the customer was my expertise and what I brought to the table.

2. Use the Fact That You’re Female

Now, I’m not suggesting you play into a stereotype. However, as a female in corporate America, you may have the opportunity to reach out and put colleagues, partners, and customers at ease in a way that may be more difficult for some of your male counterparts. Research, like this Pew Research report, shows that women excel at compromise.

One day, I was in a meeting with our development team (again, as the only woman in the room) when the team became very polarized about the way we should approach a project. Team members were digging in their heels on opposite sides of the subject with little hope of bridging the differences. I stepped in and articulated the positions of each camp as I understood them, acknowledging the concerns that had been shared. Once I did that, the tension in the room immediately began to ease, like the air being let out of a balloon, as team members on each side felt heard. From there, I was able to throw out options that the team started considering. We didn’t solve the problem in that meeting, but we made progress. While I’m not saying that one of the male members of the team couldn’t have stepped into the role I played, as a woman, you may be better able to help your teammates compromise. Use that to your advantage to create connections, build rapport, and help your team excel.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Stand up and Be Counted

Your male colleagues aren’t. Research has shown over and over that women are not as comfortable as men in raising their hands and speaking up in meetings. Often, it’s because they fear backlash. See Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s blog, Speaking While Female, for some interesting research on the issue and some creative solutions for interrupting gender bias. Namely, by actively adopting practices that focus more on the idea than the speaker and encouraging women to speak up.

Most of the time, in my own experience, when I took the risk to speak up and express my opinions and ideas, they were evaluated objectively, just like my male peers. So, my advice? Speak your mind and share your ideas. You may be pleasantly surprised at how positively your opinion and thoughts are received.

4. Ask for What You Want

Most of us women believe we will be noticed for the hard work we do, so we silently wait to be noticed, praised, and promoted. Unfortunately, this does us more harm than good. According to an internal Hewlett-Packard report, men apply for jobs for which they only meet 60% of the requirements, while women only apply for jobs for which they meet 100% of the requirements, which means we’re missing out on a lot of great opportunities!

I remember pitching a client for a job for something I’d never done. Honestly, I felt a bit like a fraud. But I quieted that nagging voice in my head, squared my shoulders, told myself “Of course, I can do this!” and went out and got the business. And guess what? I delivered a kick*** project and my client was thrilled with the results! Push yourself to apply for that position you’ve always dreamed of even if you know it’s a stretch. You’ll never grow if you don’t take on new challenges. So, ask for the promotion—don’t wait. Be confident in your abilities and think back to all the things you’ve learned and all the skills you’ve acquired that have prepared you for it. You can do it!

5. Support Other Women

I’ve always believed that women should empower each other, and by this, I’m not saying we should create a “We Hate Men” club. Reach out to other women in your organization at all levels and talk to and support each other. Alexandra Nation spoke to this in her recent blog about women in tech and how groups of saleswomen (and men) support each other within Marketo. In fact, one of the best pieces of advice I got came from a female mentor. She shared her personal experiences with salary negotiations and told me to value my work and ask for what I believed I was worth, even if it felt like too much. She gave me the courage to ask for the big, scary number during salary negotiations.

How much faster can we crack that glass ceiling into a million shards if we build on the knowledge of those who came before? If we continuously break new ground with the support of other women, the sky’s the limit!

Some of the wisest people I know are women. What have you learned about cracking the glass ceiling? Pay it forward and pass on what you have learned in the comments below.