Navigating As A Woman In A Man’s (Working) World

Workin’ Girl

So many of us know the struggle of being a woman of color in a male-dominated workplace.


We must be soft as to not be attitudinal, but not too soft as to still be a boss. We must be kind, as to not be a "b*tch", but not too kind as to not be a pushover. We're constantly faced with having to tone down our strength and assertiveness, but not too much because we still need to be effective leaders. For some, there's a constant battle of diminishing who you are to fit a standard of 'professionalism' the workplace demands — a standard that was not created for us or by us. This is a challenging reality to face and even more challenging to manage.

But all is not lost. Though we might have to play the game a little, we deserve to be here and that's become increasingly evident. Women are rising to the occasion and creating organizational shifts that only we can. But getting here was not easy, and staying here won't be either.

The following gems are provided by #GirlBosses who own their womanhood and femininity and still thrive in their respective industries. These tips come from women in medicine, finance, higher education, law enforcement, and politics. Though this list is not all-inclusive, it will certainly help you cement your footing toward promotion and tackle the day-to-day struggles of being a woman in a man's working world.

Trust Your Instincts & Skill-set.

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When operating in a male-dominated space one of the most important things is confidence. Understand that you were hired for a reason. Your specific skill-set and knowledge base is an asset to the company, and you must trust that. So often, we question our decisions based on the opposition of a co-worker. Instead, stand tall in what you know, and trust that what you feel is right is actually right. Recognize the value you bring to the company, and honor it by speaking up and sharing your expertise. You know more than you think you do.

"The confidence that you have in your work ethic and knowledge should never waiver. Sometimes in this environment silence is interpreted as a deficiency in knowledge or lack of conviction. Speak up and be confident in yourself." — Huiam Mubarak, MD, Neurology

"Trusting my instincts meant doing what felt right in the moment. Whether it be inquiring about an oddity in existing processes or simply relying on my intuition, I learned to trust my gut feeling as I navigate through my career. It's not enough just to listen to your gut feeling... you have to actually trust it." — Daena A. Barnes, Programming Supervisor/Build Engineer, Financial Technology

Stop Trying to be Nice.

Business woman showing she means business

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Playing nice — which is often considered as timid in the workplace — will not guarantee you professional growth. By the time the Chief of Police taught me this lesson, I'd been working in the office for about a year. The lesson came after a very steamy meeting with him and a few lieutenants — some of them women. He left the meeting feeling accomplished and stopped at my desk to exclaim how being nice doesn't get you far in a man's world. I held onto that as I began navigating various male-dominant workspaces.

Being nice alone doesn't get you many places. I've watched women and men alike, get chewed up and spit out because they thought their niceness would open doors. Alternatively, I've watched the biggest jerks get the best promotions, not because they were jerks, but because at the end of their poor behavior was a mind (and results) that couldn't be ignored.

The truth is, business is business, and that's what people are most concerned about. So yes, be kind, but at the forefront of that kindness should be business. Nice does not win you likes if your work is lacking — especially not if it's lacking because you were too busy being nice. Stop apologizing for being assertive because you'd rather be 'nice' instead. Stop saying sorry for "bothering" a colleague when you want a question answered, or being okay with unmet deadlines and excessive excuses.

Be business-minded and firm — and don't apologize for it.

Play the “Boy’s Game.”

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Though it may suck, some industries require us to play the game. The easiest, most authentic way to do this is by simply making the decision-makers feel comfortable. Making them feel comfortable opens a door of closeness that may be required for being invited to the table. Don't compromise your morals to do so, but when possible, show them that you can hang too. Make witty jokes, participate in the conversation, partner with them on projects, and allow them to let their guard down around you. Show them that you can participate in the game, and promotion will surely follow.

"As I progress in my career, there are less women around at management and senior management meetings. Sure, there are women doing the every day work, but it's majority of men calling the hard shots. There are 7 levels above me to get to the CEO and only 1 level is occupied by a woman. This means, I have to play the 'boys game' and ensure I make the men feel comfortable around me. They are the ones that make the decisions regarding who gets the new clients and the big high profile opportunities. If they are not comfortable with you on a personal level, it is harder for them to want to give you the opportunity when it is their neck on the line." — C. Felicita Castro, Vice President, Finance Industry

Honor Your Lived Experiences.

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As women — particularly women of color — we have specific lived experiences that set us apart from many of our counterparts. Dr. Huiam Mubarak believes in the importance of utilizing these experiences in the work we do, no matter what that work is. Being able to connect our own experiences to our work allows us to fulfill our roles more passionately — a trait that inspires us to thrive even when no one else is looking. It also helps us form deeper connections to the work and the people we serve, create a larger impact, and provide a diverse lens for which things should be considered. All of which makes our output unique to the company.

"You should always remember that your life experiences are invaluable in the care that you provide to your patients. Don't ever forget where you came from and who you are. Be proud of the things that others may consider a weakness and use it to your advantage." — Huiam Mubarak, MD, Neurology

Utilize Your Compassion.

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Though compassion is innate and doesn't necessarily differ between men and women, the ways in which compassion is expressed does. Women, in general, experience more compassion in their lives than men. Officer Jill Knox, Victim Support Specialist, encourages women to use this to their advantage:

"The key for me has been the gift of talking and being familiar with so many people in my community. Sympathizing and being aware of what's going on with people helps me conquer as a Black woman."

Jill suggests that her ability to connect with the community where she works, positions her to accomplish more than her male counterparts. "People trust me," she says. And this trust helps Jill better serve her community. By utilizing her natural compassion, Jill has been able to successfully serve and form connections that keep her in the very position she worked hard to obtain. This is particularly useful for those working in fields that encourage community and client input for hiring and promotion decisions.

Establish a Firm Sister Circle.

Happiness happens when we stand together

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Finding women in the workplace — and in your industry — is critical for ensuring you survive all that comes with being in a man's working world. Just like having sister-friends for your personal life, establishing a professional sister circle can serve as a support base, as mentorship, and as a means to remain level-headed when things get real. Contrary to your normal group of friends, your professional sister circle understands what it's like to do your work and be in the field. Because of this, they're able to offer specific insight to help you conquer within your respective industry and/or workplace. A professional sister circle will push you to greater heights professionally and will serve as a shoulder to cry on during your hardest days.

"From being the only woman of color in my classes to teaching students emboldened to call me out my name, the journey to becoming Dr. Yancy has taken more than given. To counter these feelings and experiences, some key people like my mom, my sister-circle, Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, and Dr. Shayla Nunnally, provided me with tools for radical self-care. From daily affirmations to creating space for myself and other sisters to speak truth to power and celebrate the complexity of being our full selves [in and out of this work] I now have the tools to use my voice, promote Black women's intellectualism, and ensure Black women are seated at the table." — Brittney Yancy, Assistant Professor at Goodwin College, Doctoral Candidate at the University of Connecticut, and Ambassador to the United States of Women.

Are there any other tips that you learned that has helped you navigate yourself in a man's working world? Share them below!

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