One of the Boys
November 27, 2011 6:44 PM   Subscribe

How do you, as a woman, succeed in the "good ol'" boy's club?

Do men really do things differently in the workplace in order to advance in their career? What exactly do they do? What might I be doing wrong, sexism aside, as a woman?

How do I fight against the fact that, whether at a desk or at a technical/hand's-on job, men at least -seem- to assume that I can't do my job, which lowers my confidence in my technical abilities and therefore leads them to assume.....etc? Unless, of course, whatever it is I'm doing happens to be secretarial in nature, which I do happen to be good at.

I'd like a little more concrete and detailed advice than "just do good work", unless that really is the end-all key to things. But then how do I show others the good job I often know I've done? Even the seemingly minor spreadsheets I either revised or made from scratch are now the default forms for some of the work that gets done every day. While I certainly put these accomplishments on my list of things to consider in my evaluations, is it odd for me to get the feeling that some of this kind of work I do, the kind that's secretarial in nature and often of my own initiative, is unappreciated or undervalued?

Am I wrong to CC the persons in charge of me e-mails from customers lauding my accomplishments? Does that ever get annoying or tedious up the ladder?

If you can recommend books, blogs, or articles about this as well, I'd really appreciate it. I realize some of what I'm asking is "business success only" in nature, but I really do believe in the Boy's Club as a real thing. You can see it especially from the outside over time. Thanks.
posted by DisreputableDog to Work & Money (27 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
What industry do you work in?
posted by Foci for Analysis at 6:48 PM on November 27, 2011

Response by poster: Computers.
posted by DisreputableDog at 6:51 PM on November 27, 2011

Shameless self-promotion is key. I'm constantly astonished by the way my male colleagues will circulate to all and sundry the slightest success story. And if you give them a compliment they never shrug and say it was nothing - it's always seized upon as an opportunity to say that yes, they are amazing. I'm in academia, but it wasn't much different when I worked in software.

So, yes, forward on those emails. Don't ever (and I learned this the hard way) say that an achievement is nothing all that great, because they sure as hell won't. You have to be a bit careful about it, though, because the rules are not quite the same for women.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 6:54 PM on November 27, 2011 [7 favorites]

I used to be in the computer industry. You can not succeed in the old boys club. That's why it's called the old boys club. The best that you can hope for is to find a place in the industry where women are respected equally along with men. Such places are rare. This is why women are leaving the industry Alternatively, you can try to start your own consulting business.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 6:57 PM on November 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm a woman with an electrical engineering degree who has been in high-tech product development for the past 30 years or so.

Yes, it is an old boy's club, especially in hardware development and especially in R&D. If you want to do that kind of work, you need to make sure you are seen as being a competent technical contributor.

Even though I hate the title, I like the advice in Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman, which exposes the "rules" of the "old boy's club". No, not all workplaces are like that. Yes, some still are.

Even if you enjoy doing secretarial work, unless it is your job, I would recommend you avoid those assignments. Also, avoid being the "mom" for the group -- it is not your job to bring cookies to work, organize team outings, etc...
posted by elmay at 7:03 PM on November 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One of the big things I've seen in studies of women and their lack of success in completely closing the wage gap is they dont aggressively pursue new projects or raises on average compared to men: don't be one of these women.

Don't feel bad that you are good at administrative tasks (I am too) but think of other strengths that you have that are not specific to "secretarial" work. I developed my writing very purposefully so that I can feel proud when my boss says "ok this is what I want to say but don't use my words because you are so much better at it" as opposed to please collate this because you are way better at it. Don't bother with trying to persuade your colleagues, most people (men and women) are set in their ways and it is not your job to convince them otherwise.
posted by boobjob at 7:04 PM on November 27, 2011

While I certainly put these accomplishments on my list of things to consider in my evaluations, is it odd for me to get the feeling that some of this kind of work I do, the kind that's secretarial in nature and often of my own initiative, is unappreciated or undervalued?

Most of my work history is secretarial. It is totally normal for that sort of work to be undervalued, IMO. Also, listing it as an accomplishment is probably making your colleagues think of you as a secretary. Quit thinking that that is your only talent. Promote things you do that are responsibilities for your job specifically and for the job you want. Even as a secretary, I would just sort of check the box that I was doing my regular job well and spend a lot more time talking about side projects I took on: project management, websites, grant-writing, etc.

Do you have a mentor? Sit down with someone more senior whom you get along with and ask how to get where you want. Part of having weekly 1:1s with my bosses was also reviewing that I did X, Y, and Z awesome things this week, and here's what I'm planning to focus on next.

I also really enjoyed working in a majority-female company. Culture matters.
posted by momus_window at 7:04 PM on November 27, 2011

Stop assuming that other people think you are incompetent. You have your job now because someone thought you would be good at it. It sounds like you are good at it because you are getting positive feedback from customers, and you don't mention that you've received any negative feedback from your boss(es). But you really do have to be confident in yourself before other people can be confident in you. It's the foundation of all relationships. Love yourself first. Work on your confidence, and if necessary, practice the skills you feel less confident in. If you can't practice them more at work, advertise those skills on craigslist or a tech help site.

Everyone has tasks at work that only matter to them. If it's something you really feel is necessary to do, then do it. If not, stop doing it or outsource it.

If you want to truly feel like you are getting ahead in a "good 'ol boy's club", you can try to do more. I've read am-BITCH-ous and Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office, which, although they aren't perfect, offer some great insights on behaviors that women have developed socially that may alienate women in some offices that are more cut-throat, good-'ol-boy type places. Like doing makeup at your desk. Again, not perfect suggestions, but you never know.

Sometimes, it's no use. I worked in a terrible office for years, and there really was no place for me to go, career-wise. It might help your case, if you feel trapped/alienated by the boys, to move to a more progressive employer/workplace. They do exist.
posted by two lights above the sea at 7:06 PM on November 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: No one will ever care as much about your career as you. Don't ever forget that. Absolutely forward those emails. "Hey, boss, just wanted you to know that issue has been taken care of."

Ask your boss "What do I need to do to be in your office in a year?"

Look for a female mentor, regardless of her career field.

Write your own evaluation. Literally, at the beginning of your evaluation period, sit down with your boss (or whomever will sign your evaluation) and say, "What do we want this to look like when you sign it in a year?" Every couple of weeks, take a look at it and see what you need to work on to make it come true. Every quarter, ask for another meeting with your boss to see whether the two of you agree that you're doing it right.

Play the game. Figure out what your boss and the lackeys and the boys' club care about, and then care about it too. They all spend an hour every day talking about football? Learn the game to the point you can talk about it. Hate football? Too bad. That is as much part of your career as knowing how to program.
Corollary to that -- if your boss has a bookshelf, look at it. Read those kinds of books.
posted by Etrigan at 7:07 PM on November 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm in a white male dominated field in a position that only five women in the country are considered on the A list. I am one of the five women and I am not white.

It is not easy to play ball with the boys.

I wear make up, I do my hair, I wear dresses or skirts and heels. I make sure they all know I am a woman that needs to be respected as a woman but I can do anything they can do and better. I have a "don't BLEEP with me attitude" while smiling.

Yes, CC everyone and their mother. If they think it is annoying, they will tell you. You must self promote any chance you get. It may be a little conceited, but if you are not singing your praises, who do you think will? I am firm and I do say things that show I have a set of gonads when I need to.

Most of all, make sure you do everything as perfect as you can.

I had to work much harder and be more aggressive and smile through it all. I say "thank you" and "can you do me a favor" a lot. I also curse a lot when something isn't exactly right.

Good luck, you can do it, I have faith in you!
posted by Yellow at 7:11 PM on November 27, 2011 [14 favorites]

Oh yes, one more thing -- to the extent you can, be assertive in carving out the interesting and challenging projects. The more you succeed at difficult tasks, the more people will believe that you can. If you only ever find yourself doing secretarial work (and that's not your job description) pushing back on that is one of the first things to try to change.

[And then, of course, do everything you can to rock those tasks.]
posted by forza at 7:12 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking that Block Women's Paths to Power

Just finished this book and completely rocked my world. I was amazed at how wrong I had been going about managing my own career. It was truly a punch to the gut, but a much needed one.

There are other books I recommend as well:

- Executive Presence : The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO
- Secrets to Winning at Office Politics: How to Achieve Your Goals and Increase Your Influence at Work
- Brag!: The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn without Blowing It
- Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done
posted by SoulOnIce at 7:16 PM on November 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

Even if you enjoy doing secretarial work, unless it is your job, I would recommend you avoid those assignments. Also, avoid being the "mom" for the group -- it is not your job to bring cookies to work, organize team outings, etc...

This. A million times over. Don't do it!
posted by SoulOnIce at 7:19 PM on November 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I don't work in computers or IT, but I do work in a male-dominated industry. In my experience, men bond through shared experiences or activities--pulling all-nighters, going on location, etc.--not through talking things through.
Support-staff, tasky work is unappreciated, which is why I delegate that stuff.
It's not bragging if you actually did it, so stop being a modest mouse and tell people about your accomplishments or accolades.

I try to look like a girl, curse like a sailor (if this isn't natural, don't try to fake it), take complements and chewings-out like a man. If someone who's not my superior tries to call me on the carpet or give me a hard time about something I did or didn't do, I don't just take it. I'll listen, but I also stand my ground and speak up about myself and my team.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:22 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a guy but I know many women who have successfully done this. I do think men will tend to think you're less competent as an initial first impression. However, I think that can go away very very quickly if you make it clear that they're wrong. Do something uber-technical and wizardy, and take the opportunity to show it off to every new person you work with. Make a complicated spreadsheet macro or program something in C or build a freakin' robot that drives around your cubicle. Just make it extremely clear that you are technically competent and not coasting along on your Office abilities.

Also, be very careful about falling into the "team secretary" trap -- just because you're a woman doesn't mean you're more organized, or more fun, or more nice than anyone else.
posted by miyabo at 8:45 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Be comfortable and confident (or fake being so) in correcting others and in asking for what you need to do your job well. As a male in tech, these are two things I've consistently seen my female coworkers and reports do less frequently than males. Though I try to correct for it, it still leaves an impression.

Also, have perspective on your talents. I can't count the number of times I've seen job listings that ask for (e.g.) "five years of Java experience". Male candidates with three years will say "Ok, that counts. Let me apply for this job." Meanwhile, female candidates with seven years of experience will say "Well, I was just starting out at that one job, and part of my work on the other project was split with some .net work, so I guess it's not really five years..."

The burden of correcting our industry's sexism should not be yours, and I'm sorry for that. But things can and will get better. In the meantime, cultivate your social network within your company and your sector of the industry; ultimately this will trump even your technical skills in determining the trajectory of your career.
posted by anildash at 9:25 PM on November 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Ignore, ignore, ignore. If someone talks down to you or is skeptical of your skills ignore them. Do your job, be professional and take them to task for job-specific problems with their attitude, not gender specific issues. If someone is not working with you or is excluding you from projects that is your managers problem, talk to them and let them know they need to fix it. If you can't work with someone because of their attitude, then don't. If anyone asks be specific about behaviors (I am not invited to meetings, I was left out of the development discussion, my suggestions were overridden) do not go address what you perceive as the reasons why these things are happening. Ignore personality issues. Let others draw their own conclusions why there is a work related problem. in most cases people who are difficult to work with are difficult for everyone to work with, not just you and people will know that. Be professional and pleasant to everyone, always.

Some strengths you have as a woman is that you can stay outside the chest beating that goes on. I have made a career out of making other people get along, basically by a combination of low key bullying and providing common sense solutions mediation to disputes and/or long running feuds. I use a combination of good technical skills and building relationships with others based purely on their technical skills and willingness to work as a team when that door is opened to them. I kind of force the door open by being slightly bossy and also very egalitarian. Because I already have the reputation for ignoring personality issues and sticking to the facts and because I've made it clear that I won't take sides that works. You have the opportunity to be a real leader because you are that little bit detached from the office politics. Encourage people to come to you for mediation and for problem solving, this is a great way to build on your slightly outsider status. This does not mean allowing the men to come and complain about each other or gossip or ask you for relationship advice, which they will want to do, it means saying a lot of things like "I understand the history but now that I'm here in this position we will move past it because I think it's time". Because it's me saying it and I'm saying it with a smile people feel they can back down.

Don't be afraid to drop the hammer when needed or to have one on one conversations with people who are refusing to work with you. Don't address any personal issues like "I feel you ignore me but listen to male colleagues only" say "I need for us to be able to work together on this and we're not and we need to find a solution like right now. I have some ground rules that i think will improve the situation, can we agree to them now?". If you've thought this through ahead of time they can't not agree and then you have a trail if it comes down to duking it out in front of your bosses. If that doesn't work get rid of them. Use the tactics other people use against you, let the student become the master. Working with a respectful and trusting team is important and making it very clear that you do your best work in that kind of environment will lead to that kind of environment being yours.

Don't try to be anything you're not. I get along fine with men but I'm not a man. I am interested in talking to my coworkers about their social activities and I attend some of them but I don't feel the need to go to boys only social events. Don't be the office mascot. If social activities are part of your office culture then organize some social activities on your terms, you'll be surprised how many of your colleagues will be thrilled to do something new.

And, most of all, don't sleep with the people you work with. Ever. Ever, ever, ever.
posted by fshgrl at 11:22 PM on November 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I can't say what you should do, but I can tell you what I do.

I have short hair and dress in a fairly masculine fashion. I particularly take care not to dress in a way that mimics the female admin and bookkeeping staff. If I'm unusually concerned about being taken seriously in a particular situation, I will wear heels purely for the height. I take care to stand up straight with my shoulders back and look people in the eye.

When introduced to new people I will try to be the first to offer a handshake. When in a bar I try to buy the first round. I speak up in meetings and am happy to be the first to offer my opinion. If I'm being talked over egregiously, I'll happily raise the volume, interrupt them and demand politely to get a word in edgewise.

I am direct in my speech and try not to equivocate with "I think" and "maybe".

I avoid getting stuck with any more admin / tea making responsibilities than my fair share. I specifically rejected a desk by the front door of the office because I didn't want to be the de facto receptionist.

If I meet someone and they clearly have a mistaken impression of my abilities I will craft some kind of techno bomb to drop into the conversation, as early as possible, which usually resets the conversation appropriately.

Every now and then I will send relevant and interesting technical articles around the office.

I do not bring baked goods to work.
posted by emilyw at 1:07 AM on November 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

How do I fight against the fact that, whether at a desk or at a technical/hand's-on job, men at least -seem- to assume that I can't do my job, which lowers my confidence in my technical abilities and therefore leads them to assume.....etc?

Recognize that seeming to assume you can't do your job is the default position in IT; it's not because you're a woman, it's because most working programmers actually suck.

If you get a reputation for doing your work with competence and skill, you will rapidly find yourself accepted as a member of the good IT minority; if you're competent and skilful and find yourself surrounded by arseholes who have never read The Mythical Man-Month and lack all Clue, have the confidence to jump ship.

Read the Daily WTF - seriously excellent resource. Having the mockable way to do almost anything lodged in the back of your mind at all times saves a tremendous amount of time while you research the right way.
posted by flabdablet at 5:00 AM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

don't sleep with the people you work with. Ever. Ever, ever, ever.

This is excellent advice regardless of gender.
posted by flabdablet at 5:02 AM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Again and again, studies show that women don't necessarily behave differently from men....but people have very different expectations for women than for men. Violating those expectations -- e.g. refusing to do secretarial work, not being warm and friendly at all times, acting as aggressively as the men do -- often causes a backlash against women. So just changing your behavior, acting like one of the boys, can actually be harmful to your career. I would avoid any of those books that just tell you to study the guys and imitate their behavior.

Instead, I'd recommend reading anything by Joan Williams or Hannah Riley Bowles on the topic. Here are two basic articles summing up some of Bowles' research. Here's a dense, well-researched, thoughtful book by Williams. You might also be interested in William's Center for Worklife Law.

And although you're probably very busy, working harder than the men around you just to keep up, don't forget to help and mentor other women! That's how we change the world over the long run.

I've studied and taught gender and negotiation for 15 years. Feel free to mefimail me with questions.
posted by equipoise at 8:37 AM on November 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

Know that you are not alone. There is a whole online community of women in tech. I was "the only girl" for over a decade, and a lot of other women are in that situation now too, and we're all on your side.

Some random resources:

The Geek Feminism Blog
How To Be A Woman In Any Boy's Club
The Border House Blog (geared towards gamers, rather than career)
Women In Tech
posted by ErikaB at 10:08 AM on November 28, 2011

From the consulting standpoint, the view is exactly the opposite of equipoise is seeing - women who ask for more during a negotiation drop to the bottom of the list, men who counter offer get more. And it continues like that. The only good news is that people are looking at gender inequality in the name of "retention." It's a problem because women don't act like men (making counter-offers or asking for raises) and when a few rogue women break the mold, those  women are treated differently. Read all the stupid self-help books - they aren't exactly well written and they tend to be repetative and, if they have examples/case studies, those are horribly written, but there are things you need to know and to read over and over so you don't forget. 

And when you get to a point where you're hiring or being ask about hires, every single time anyone says something non-positive about a female, ask them to explain their thinking. 
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:01 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I work as a web developer/application developer. I have not, nor never will I ever be, a woman. That said, hopefully there will be something helpful to you in my observations.

You mention that men feel that you can't do your job, or doubt your technical skills. Whether this is because of your gender or not, I can't say. However, I will tell you that in my experience, IT workers have a general tendency to doubt everyone else's technical skills, including each other's. Some of this is just ingrained cynicism due to having to deal with seemingly clueless users and/or bosses on a regular basis. But some of it is also that sort of hubris that programmers and engineers tend to pick up. We IT people tend to think that the way that we prefer to do thing is the ONE RIGHT WAYTM and if you code something differently or highlight the headers in your spreadsheet in a different color then you are DOING IT WRONG OHNOSTOPWHATAREYOUDOINGLETMEFIXITGRAAAAHHHH!!!

It's not good, and I fight that tendency hard, but I do recognize it in myself. I've seen it much worse in others I've worked with who would tear my perfectly functional and elegant work apart just because they would have preferred to use their pet tool or technology or method instead.

I would also suggest learning to talk the technical talk if you aren't already. I know the way people speak does vary from place to place, but my gut instinct tells me that anyone who says they work in "computers" is not very technically skilled. It's a subtle difference, but saying that you work in "computer hardware manufacturing" or "software development" or "IT consulting" or "server administration" or anything more specific makes you sound more on the beat. If someone told you they work in "cars", what would you think? Are they a mechanic? An automotive engineer? A salesman? A towel boy at the carwash? It's too generic of a description, and the absence of the details may make one wonder if the individual themselves even knows the difference between these different professions. (I'm not saying you have poor technical skills or that you don't know what your company does, I'm just suggesting a way you can better present yourself to others).

Come to think of it, I think a lot of men have at least an unconscious tendency to see any questions about their job or industry as an opportunity to boast. That's probably why some people, and especially technical people, have a tendency to talk about the minutia of their projects until people's eyes glaze over and they excuse themselves as politely as possible and make a mental note to never ask that person about their job again. It can be an annoying trait and is probably part of that unconscious male competitive spirit, but it might actually work to men's advantage in the work place. I'm just speculating here, but I would suggest when asked what you do, don't be afraid to say "my company manufacturers ABC widget, and I keep all the ordering systems running so that the money can flow!" (or whatever your job or contribution is). If you sound like you believe your job is important to the company, maybe others will believe it too.

I'm just rambling based on the first thoughts that popped into my head, but I hope there's something in there that was useful.
posted by Vorteks at 1:08 PM on November 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Sharp Skirts is a great website/community for female professionals. Their weekly (ish?) newsletter is well-written and full of good links related to issues surrounding women in business.
posted by pineapple at 9:43 PM on November 28, 2011

Response by poster: So many great answers! I picked out the "best" ones that seem to fit what I need especially right now.

Vorteks - that's one of my biggest issues. I'm trying to study / acquire certifications and therefore implement better technical language in my work conversation. Some of that will undoubtedly be more frequently on the tip of my tongue as I gain more confidence, but it's hard going.
posted by DisreputableDog at 10:43 PM on November 30, 2011

trying to study / acquire certifications and therefore implement better technical language in my work conversation.

Male IT worker here.

The single most valuable piece of technical language in my entire vocabulary is "I don't know. What should I do to find out?" And that's valuable because I care far more about what my colleagues think of my abilities than I do about what management thinks, and if there's one thing that IT people are oh-so-sensitively tuned to detect, it's boss-baffling bullshit.

The single most important question I use on first encountering some inscrutable new system or device is "If I'd had to design that, how would it work?" And that's valuable because there's some chance that the way I'd have done it might actually be somewhat close to the way it was done, which helps me figure out how to approach learning about it. Even if that's not the case, starting with some conceptual framework - even the wrong one, provided I'm not emotionally attached to it - is protective against feeling so overwhelmed by the Huge New Thing as to collapse into intimidated paralysis.

I can also tell you that although I've obviously worked with many more male than female colleagues (programming is still a boys' club) I've found no correlation at all between gender and actual IT competence. I've seen extremely competent work from one intersex, three female and maybe twenty male programmers.

What I certainly have noticed, though, is that among incompetent colleagues, the males seemed to have put much more work into polishing their boss-baffling bullshit skills than had the sole incompetent female (who actually ended up taking a lot longer to get sacked than did any of the flash boys, though my sample size is probably far too small to justify reading much into that).

I guess what I'm saying here is that I don't recommend certifications as ends in and of themselves; talking the talk will naturally emerge from walking the walk, but probably not the other way around. The long term payoff for spending your time gaining an accurate and detailed understanding of whatever it is you're supposed to be working on is, I think, far greater than spending that time on becoming fully buzzword compliant. If you're going for certifications, pick the ones that address specific gaps in your understanding of your current projects.
posted by flabdablet at 11:52 PM on November 30, 2011

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