How to get Ahead in a Male-Dominated Industry

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Although women make up about 47% of the workforce in America, certain industries leave women drastically unrepresented. STEM industries, in particular engineering and computer science,  have so few women that programs such as National Girls Collaborative Project and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls Campaign have made it their initiative to promote female involvement in these fields.

Male-Dominated Industry statistics

Now, what do you do when you are in one of these male-dominated industries? How do you deal with sexual harassment, wage gaps, maternity leave, and even hiding your femininity?  Books such as Lean In by Sheryl Sandburg, Getting to 50/50 by Sharon Meers, and Bossypants by Tina Fey all give an in-depth guide on how to handle being a woman in various male-dominated industries. However, what about at the lower level? I’m the typical millennial stereotype, underemployed with crippling student debt and a dusty degree. I don’t work in entertainment like the lovely Tina Fey, nor am fighting over the corner office; nah, my industry is pizza. Which is surprisingly male-dominated.

It sounds bizarre, but realistically how many times have you had a lady deliver your food? When I first started working at an unnamed fast-food pizza joint, it wasn’t uncommon for me to be the only female on shift. Four years later, I’m one of three female assistant managers under a newly appointed female general manager, but in the early days I had to deal with the same problems other women do in male-dominated industries.

Dealing with Sexual Harassment

The first time I worked at my pizza company one of the male employees thought it would be incredibly funny to take my cell phone and make the background a picture of the outline of his junk in his boxers. Although a silly prank, it really made me feel extremely uncomfortable and violated that my personal property was being subjected to this. However, being new and not wanting to look like I couldn’t joke around I laughed it off. Looking back I realise that was a grave mistake.

sexual harassment in a male-dominated industry

According to, 54% of survey participant’s experiences sexual harassment, 74% being women.

The best way to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace is to stop it immediately. Even though it may be polite to laugh it off, it is giving the perpetrator more access to continuing tormenting you and less leverage you have when you make a formal complaint.

In my own experience, when I did finally make a formal complaint to my boss I was told to “man up” about it. Years later and in a position of power, when I see and hear anything, I stamp it out. (Don’t get me started on my campaign to end casual rape jokes between my male drivers).

Some women think that if they deal with this type of harassment they will get ahead in their male-dominated industry. However, no matter how misogynist your boss is, a sexual harassment lawsuit is bad for business.

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Being Heard

I can’t tell you how many times I would raise my voice to an issue and be shot down or told to “make a sandwich” (seriously). These voices were generally people under me in rank. While I was a shift runner I had drivers purposely not listen to me. It is sometimes hard to speak up in a crowd that taunts you and dehumanizes you, but if you want to get ahead you need to be heard.

Sometimes the best way to be heard is to play up the gender stereotypes your male coworkers expect. There were times I had employees come to me to blow off steam, talk to me about their life in and out of the workplace. I became a sort of therapist within the group, using my female listening skills. So the next time we had a staff meeting I brought up the issues my fellow employees faced. Because I was actively listening and trying to solve their problems there was no joking about my status, in fact, I earned respect.

It can be extremely difficult to gain respect, especially when you have ruthless male employees. I once had an employee curse me out in front of customers after disciplining him and then later yelled at by my boss because I didn’t handle the situation correctly (luckily I had a respected male employee on my side). Depending on your own personality, you can banter back, or find a mentor within the company. The main thing you want to prove is that you belong there, that you have a voice, and you know how to use it.

lean in sheryl sandberg quote about working in a male-dominated industry

Bringing Feminism into the Workplace

It may sound crazy, but the workplace is actually a great place to practice everyday feminism. Most women and girls veer from male-dominated industries because they feel uncomfortable or not up for the challenge. As a woman in one of these industries, it is your job to be the trailblazer and create the path for a new generation of women. While nearly 37% of women leave their careers due to family obligations, showing that careers are in tuned to the male agenda leaving women out of the race. While major overhauls like maternity leave and not being paid as well as your male coworker might be out of your league, simple actions and pushes can change your working environment.

I start with the case of the tampons incident. After being snapped at for a tenth time for secretly asking a co-worker if she had a tampon at work, I gave up and decided to buy a box for the store. Even though I placed the contraband out of sight, the curious men of my company sniffed it out and reacted as if I had brought in nuclear waste instead. It was the classic double bind, but I argued this one out.

“I can’t talk about my period because it’s gross and offensive, but have to listen all day about which customer has the biggest tits, so I fix the problem and you can’t deal with some cotton and plastic?”

I was called a bitch, a feminist nazi, and those were to my face. But you know what, I stuck it out and now we have tampons in the bathroom.

Another thing I must stress is that you do not tear down another woman in your field for advancement. Women have this awful stereotype of cattiness and the truth is, women do create conflict with other women at work. This doesn’t help anyone. If you are already the minority within your industry, why push out the rest of you? Creating a better workplace for women by women will bring them to your industry.

Although it seems like a dark never-ending tunnel, we have to remember that with our continuing push for women in these industries opens opportunities for all. We have recently have made great strides with the NFL’s first female referee and the U.S. army’s first two women to graduate the rigorous Ranger School. Each time one woman defies a stereotype and breaks open that glass ceiling she leaves room for that little girl at home making her dreams bigger than ever before.


The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission




Fast Company

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