From tech to aviation and F&B, we chat to six women about their experiences working in industries that are typically dominated by men…
Thanks to the gender gap in both pay and leadership roles, it’s hard enough to be a woman in the workplace. So what if you’re the only woman in your workplace? A recent study concluded that women who are “Onlys”—meaning, they are often one of the only people of their race or gender in the room at work—have especially difficult day-to-day experiences. This, coupled with stories of mansplaining, sexual harassment and gender-based micro-aggressions, are likely to be at least part of the reason why women tend to avoid more lucrative, male-dominated industries like STEM and finance – but what is the reality of working in a male-heavy environment?
Ahead, six women who have worked in a range of traditionally male-dominated industries share their stories, along with their top advice for success.
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Industry: Tech & Manufacturing
I have been in the tech industry for the past four years working for big tech firms and scale ups that focus on B2C apps. My experience in the tech industry has been pretty equal, and I attribute that to the tech industry being, at least in my experience, naturally progressive.
When I worked in China and at a Chinese tech firm, I’m not sure if it was because of the culture or the industry itself, but females were treated more “delicately” compared to males. It’s not like there weren’t any females in management or opportunities for my career progression, but women were treated like we needed to be cared for instead of just being able to do things ourselves.
The time in my career when I did feel there was a lack of representation and where I felt like I didn’t necessarily belong was when I was in the manufacturing industry. Every Director level and above were all men – it definitely felt like there was a boys club. I wouldn’t say that I was treated badly or differently, but it made it difficult to see a potential future for myself. I do think representation matters, and if you don’t see the same gender or race as you in senior roles, it’s hard to feel motivated to break the barrier.
My advice for girls and women wanting to get into the tech industry is to just go for it. The tech industry is not perfect, but it is progressive. Don’t overthink. Apply and don’t doubt yourself!
Industry: Food & Beverage
I used to work in the F&B industry, working my way up the ladder until I was in charge of multi-outlet operations, as well as overseeing the entire F&B department of a hotel. It’s definitely a tough industry to survive in overall; it’s a labor intensive field, and you have to be both mentally and physically strong to do the job – being female makes it 10 times harder.
A lot of the time, I was talked down to and treated like I wasn’t enough. My male managers would try to push me around, and basically get me to do their work for them, or they would take out their frustrations out on me since I was seen as an easy target. In addition, because of the physical aspects required, my male colleagues could be quite patronising when I needed help lifting heavy objects.
F&B is a very male-driven, high testosterone industry, and in my experience, if people think that you’re too soft spoken, they assume that you won’t cut it. I often felt like I had to put up a strong front so that my male colleagues wouldn’t think I was weak. I always acted tougher than I was during my time there instead of being my authentic self. It was exhausting, and it definitely shaped a lot of mental stress that I was experiencing during that point in my life.
In most industries there is probably a gender pay gap, but in a male dominated industry like F&B, it is much more prevalent. I remember one job I had where I was underpaid, and yet was given additional responsibilities, with no mention of a salary raise or a promotion. I knew that I deserved more and requested more pay, but was refused, so I resigned. I later found out that they hired someone to replace me – someone male – and they paid him 40% more than what I had been getting.
For any women looking to get into the industry, my advice is don’t be afraid to speak up and also speak your truth. Happily, I do think the industry is improving a lot for women, especially within the more innovative restaurant groups in the city. Passion and perseverance are key – you need plenty of both to last and succeed in F&B.
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My background is quite varied. I worked for an airline, global bank and education before making the leap into starting my own tech businesses. Gender discrimination definitely exists in tech like it does in any other industry, but in my experience, being a woman has not been a huge disadvantage. The key is to acknowledge it, but don’t let it define you.
What has been surprising are the number of meetings I’ve had where men naturally direct all questions to the other men in the room, even if they aren’t qualified to answer the specific question. A recent memorable meeting was when the man I was presenting to avoided eye-contact with me, and simply scrolled through his phone the entire conversation. It’s one of the very few meetings where I chose not to follow up with a company.
That being said, I don’t feel like gender is a big issue on a day-to-day work basis. I’ve never felt that I didn’t receive a promotion or higher pay because of my gender. In tech, it’s quite meritocratic, and the parameters of success are very much based on knowing what you are doing, and the quality and output of your work.
If you’re looking to get into the tech industry, definitely start with learning how to code. And if you are an engineer, ensure you have a good handle on the business side of things too.
In flight school I was the only girl in a class of 24. Until then, I had never given much thought to the fact that I would be entering a male dominated profession. My classmates were great and I really felt part of the group. I never experienced that being female was either an advantage or a disadvantage in obtaining or passing a job interview.
When you look at the statistics and note that only about 5% of airline pilots are female, yes we are a minority. On a day-to-day basis, that means on almost all the flights I operate, I work with male colleagues, and I am treated with completely the same respect and consideration as them.
We grow up in a society where we think of certain professions as “male” or “female”. When young girls are never exposed to women in the flight deck, they pick different role models in other professions. The idea to become an airline pilot simply does not occur to a lot of girls. Female pilots of my generation are by no means pioneers in this profession, but I hope that by being more visible on social media and being featured in the press, we will lead more girls to consider a career in aviation.
For women looking to become a pilot, I give the same advice as I would to future male aviators. Do your research, for example about the state of the industry during COVID, and the unstable nature of the aviation industry; have a back-up plan and if it really resonates with you, then go for it.
Before I founded my own tech startup, I worked in a hardware company – both are very male-oriented. I have fairly ambivalent feelings about being a woman in the tech industry. On the one hand, everyone does seem to be extra polite towards me. On the other, my opinion, ambitions and skills are often not treated seriously – I think this is especially the case because I am a young woman. I need to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my efforts and abilities.
My own startup, BeautyFact App, is a very female-oriented tech product. Because many of the leaders and management teams of tech incubation programmes and other business competitions are male, I find they usually skip over my product, or ask a lot of unrelated questions as they simply don’t understand it.
“Women supporting women” may be a bit of a cliche, but I think it’s still valid. In order to encourage girls and women to succeed across industries, I think the sharing of resources and experiences, as well as collaboration, is vital. I would also encourage men to support their female colleagues or teammates by listening more, and always asking for their consent instead of just assuming they want or don’t want to do something.
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As a civil engineer, my managers used to see me as a young girl who they needed to take care of or protect on site. Because of this, it was more challenging for me to build credibility and to feel respected by other workers.
On a day-to-day basis, I get the sense that my male co-workers are treated harsher than I am; their mistakes are less tolerated than mine.
Overall, the companies and organisations I’ve worked for have always been proactive in making sure women have the same opportunities as men. For instance, highlighting female workers in internal magazines and on the company website, interviewing them and awarding them. That being said, most of the women put forward for these types of things are typically not married or have no children. This seems to suggest that the only way you can make it to the top in this industry is to sacrifice everything for work.
My advice for future civil engineers is to build strong interpersonal skills, grow thick skin and stay focused on where you want to go. Also don’t be afraid to bring something new to the table.
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