7 Ways to Excel in a Male-Dominated Workplace

You rarely see another soul in the ladies room. On too many occasions, you've been mistaken for someone's assistant.

Sound familiar? For many young, successful women, "making it" professionally means learning to master male-dominated workplaces where boys' clubs still somehow pervade.

In college, I lived with seven girls. And so, perhaps it was no surprise that I found the transition to investment banking-where I was the only female analyst in my group's class-to be rather challenging. But from finance, I jumped into sports, and I have yet to look back. And along the way, I picked up some practical tips for thriving in the office-even when the gender ratio isn't in your favor.

1. The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease

Chances are, your male colleagues are constantly vocalizing which opportunities and projects they want-and you might be sitting there, working hard, and waiting to get what is rightfully yours. Sadly, most bosses are too busy to figure out what the most equitable project allocation is, and it often comes down to who yapped last to them about that hot media deal or the new partnership your company is launching. If you aren't good at grabbing your boss in the hall or during your morning coffee break and bringing up the projects that excite you, then schedule formal time to check in at least once a month and let your boss know what you'd like to work on.

2. Beer is for Bonding

The best career opportunities often come out of interactions outside the office-often over a beer. The guys I've worked with would grab beers all the time-and I quickly learned to join them, whether or not I felt like drinking that particular night. And if you're not invited (yes, this happened to me), create your own happy hour invitation-who can turn down a cold brewski?

3. Avoid Being Too Easily Offended

Guys have this thing at work called the Circle of Trust. You gain entry when they know they can be themselves around you, without being reported to HR. In the banking analyst bullpen, I heard every disgusting story there is to tell-but I stayed cool. And as a result, I eventually became part of the group and was included in the nights of ordering dinner in or going out for beers. Note: There is a line, and "staying cool" doesn't mean letting the guys cross it-sexual harassment is never OK.

4. Don't Be Anyone's Coffee or Lunch Getter

How many successful men in the workplace do you see picking up their boss's lunch or coffee? If you're not someone's assistant, do not get in the habit of acting like one. Sure, maybe there are special exceptions when your boss is in fire drill mode or decides to treat a group for getting his coffee-but don't make it a regular thing. And if your male peers aren't chipping in-then you shouldn't be doing it, either.

5. Don't Be the "Yes" Woman

In the industries I've worked in, there's tremendous pressure to work hard and keep an overflowing plate. Lunch and coffee runs aside, it's all too easy to say yes to every project as you strive to "be a good employee"-but if you never say no, you'll ultimately just hurt both yourself and your company. It's important to stand up for the projects you really want to work on (see #1), and then push back at other times when you don't have capacity. You can bet many of the guys say no-and you should, too.

6. Play to Your Strengths (Even When They're Stereotypes)

The first week of my banking internship, my managing director asked me how the interns were doing and feeling. I'm willing to bet he asked me partly because I was the only woman there, and he assumed I was therefore most likely to know about people's "feelings." But you know what? I did. And thus started our mutually beneficial relationship: I gave him a live read of the pulse of the group he was managing, and he gave me the opportunity for senior exposure. Whether it's listening, emotional aptitude, empathy, socializing or just being the den mother-if you have these strengths, play to them. They're good qualities to demonstrate as a rising future leader, and, particularly in a workplace where those skills are in short supply, they're also not a bad way to get noticed.

7. Get a Sponsor

A sponsor is a mentor who will promote you within your organization, who has your back, and who will tell the rest of organization-including the senior leaders-how great you are and how much you deserve recognition (and promotions). And like it or not, it can be nearly impossible to advance as a woman in a male-dominated workplace without a sponsor. Dr. Sylvia Ann Hewlett has written quite a bit about sponsorship, including its importance for women. What does it all mean for you? Start building relationships with your boss and other senior leaders from the beginning, and pay particular attention to cultivate those relationships with the individuals who believe in you and publicly support you-they are going to be your best advocates.

This article was originally published on
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Jane Fang works in media business development in New York City. She studied economics at Harvard College and earned her first set of corporate stripes as a media and telecom investment banking analyst.
Photo of group in office courtesy of Shuttestock.