As one of the first female sportscasters in the country, it wasn’t unusual for me to be the only woman in the locker room. In fact, I’ve spent my entire career working in male-dominated fields, first as a broadcast journalist for FOX and ABC affiliates, and later working in, then running, marketing departments in Silicon Valley.
While the U.S. has come a long way since passing the Equal Pay Act in 1963, gender equality in the workplace remains elusive. Particularly in male-dominated fields, women often face challenges that go far beyond the wage gap. Researchers from Indiana University, for instance, recently found that women in mostly male workplaces experience more stress due to social isolation, performance pressures, obstacles to mobility, and coworkers’ doubts about their competence.
To help cope with–and succeed–despite all that, here are some tips for women in male-dominated workplaces that I picked up in locker rooms and have taken with me to Silicon Valley.
Whether you’re quizzing a Hall of Fame quarterback after a game or pressing a strategic point with the CEO of your company, it’s never easy to raise difficult issues. When you’re the only female reporter in a clutch of 30 male sportscasters or the lone professional woman sitting around a boardroom table, the inclination to retreat to the background can be powerful. Just remember that it’s your job to speak up when the situation calls for it, regardless of your gender. Asking tough questions may not make you popular, but the answers can ultimately lead to better business decisions.
While it’s important to concentrate on immediate tasks, professional women also need to stay on their toes. Don’t get distracted by the politics or let a testosterone-fueled environment throw you off your game. I was once working in the locker room after a tough game when a player threw his sweaty jockstrap right at my head. I ducked just in time and got back to conducting post-game interviews.
I learned that you can’t let negative, childish, cruel, or absurd behaviors by others distract you from getting your job done. No one should tolerate abuse of any form in the workplace, and you should raise those concerns with HR managers. But even more minor issues can take a considerable effort of will to put past you. By focusing on my end goal, though, I was able to knock it out of the park on air. That was all the payback I needed.
The saying, “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar” certainly holds true. Women in male-dominated fields might justifiably feel they need to fight back when there’s a disagreement–and sometimes you should–but patience and resolution can go a long way in tense situations.
Once at a Daytona 500 practice, my boss expected me to get an interview with a Nascar driver for the 6 p.m. newscast. The timing wasn’t great because he had just crashed one of his cars, but I was under deadline. He did take the time to walk over and shout in my face that he didn’t do interviews in his garage, and that I should leave immediately. But after I persisted calmly and respectfully, he ended up relenting, and we wound up with the only interview with that driver that day.
The same goes for a heated business meeting. If you feel like you aren’t commanding the respect you deserve, especially when the room is disproportionately filled with male colleagues, fight the urge to confront the situation abrasively. Speak up with confidence, and don’t apologize. Remember: You’re there because you’ve earned a seat at the table.
As a professional woman, it’s natural to look up to other female leaders as role models and mentors. (Professionally, anyway, I admire both Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina, who’ve risen through the ranks in stridently male-dominated fields.) But when you’re networking and seeking out mentors, men should also make the cut.
No matter your gender, it’s vital for everyone to have other-sex mentors. In both my sports life and tech life, those relationships were critical in offering different perspectives. For starters, one of the best ways to combat the gender stereotypes that still plague leadership roles is to seek out mentors who defy the most commonly held biases and learn from them. Gaining insights from all types of leaders widens the set of experiences you can draw on as you move up in your own career.
Women need to support each other and continuously lift one another up, but it’s also vital that we have the support of men as well. That jockstrap anecdote I told a moment ago? What I didn’t mention was that several offensive lineman later went after the thrower, and he never bothered me again. The point isn’t that women need male saviors to back them up in the workplace, but rather that men’s actions are crucial for generating change. Diversity benefits everyone, which means that women are far from the only ones losing out in male-dominated businesses and industries. Everyone, regardless of gender, needs to support each other. Mutual respect goes a long way.
If you’re a woman working in any type of male-dominated field, from politics to law enforcement, tech to sports media, it’s vital to always be aware of your surroundings, especially gender roadblocks, so you be savvy and strategic about your next career move.
I’m lucky enough to have worked for several current and former CEOs–Godfrey Sullivan, Ken Bado, and Roger Burkhardt to name a few–who’ve prioritized gender diversity. Unfortunately the same doesn’t hold true across industries. According to LeanIn.org’s latest report on women in the workplace, while 45% of entry-level professionals are held by women, that share shrinks to 27% at VP level, and dwindles to 17% at the C-suite level. At the current rate, LeanIn estimates, we won’t reach full gender equality at the executive level for another hundred years. We can’t afford to wait that long, but I’m confident that if we keep working hard on it together, we won’t have to.
Sherry Lowe is the VP of corporate marketing at Splunk, with more than 15 years of marketing experience in enterprise technology. She is a former awarding-winning print and broadcast journalist.