In my early thirties, I entered the DoD (Department of Defense) industry as a subcontractor supporting large primes with the modernization of systems, leveraging web-based technologies and Internet Operations. After years of persistence, gaining an in-depth understanding of Federal, DoD, and individual agency acquisition rules, I won my first contract with a large prime contractor.
This contract quickly led to more opportunities. One day, at a DoD conference as an Internet Operations subject matter expert. I felt honored and excited to market the capabilities of our business, but I was also nervous about being included in such an enormous event. Keep in mind the industry was vastly different in the beginning stages of the Dot-com era of the late 90s.
I spent days worrying. I laid out some conservative suits and decided I would pull my hair back into a bun. Armed with business cards, federal company fact sheets, and our capability presentations, I felt prepared and proud to introduce Webhead. The event was packed with men dressed in military uniforms and blue business suits. I whispered to myself, “I am a skilled professional woman and I got this.”
It was not an easy crowd. Social and business institutions scrutinize, characterize, and challenge women differently than men, almost like they’re asking, “Do you have the guts for this?”
Later in the evening, a client and I were invited to a VIP dinner. When I arrived, I was the only woman in another man-filled room. After some familiar discomfort, the atmosphere relaxed, and conversations became easier. But to achieve this, I knew too well that I would have to remain hyper-aware, trying not to give off unintentional signals, disrupting the tentative calm. I had to be sure not to laugh or smile too much out of concern or I would be taken as flirty and not serious. I learned long ago that I was only one wrong step away from breaking these unspoken rules. Though I understood those rules, the fact that my male counterparts rarely faced similar scrutiny never left my mind.
When dinner was over, just when I thought the evening was ending, my client asked if I would like to get a drink. I was tired and wanted to say no- easier said than done. A saying among women goes, “Before getting a seat at the boardroom table, you have to fight for a seat at the dinner table.” Of course, the risk is always that talking business over dinner and drinks is often misunderstood as something more than “talking business.”
Not unexpectedly, our conversation and behavior transitioned from business into personal topics. My stomach churned, and my heart just sank. I was upset to learn this person I respected in the community would easily cross the line with zero disregard for the effort, resources, investment, and time it took to be here. I thought to myself, “How could I politely reject his advance without jeopardizing future business opportunities in military contracting.”
Mustering the strength to leave the situation. he calmly stated he wanted to order more drinks. Pulling cash out of his pocket for the last call, a little blue pill in his wallet flung out onto the bar table. Fortunately, his little blue pill slip-up gave me an out to the situation.
Where I wanted a teaming partner, he wanted a conquest. The next day, he acted as nothing had happened. As I caught the smirks and exchanged glances between all of his colleagues, I wondered what version of the evening my client had told them.
Afterward, I reflected upon the entire conference, concluding that I could not allow my negative experiences to hinder my vision of becoming a top woman DoD contractor. More importantly, I resolved to be brave, and not easily fret in the face of masculine norms.
The heart of the problem is that networking opportunities revolve around male interests, like happy hours, golfing events, and male bonding. It was a turning point in my career to learn how to operate in this environment. Eventually, you learn to change and manage the dynamics of business relationships with clients and colleagues.
I offer the five following tips for women in male-dominated fields:
- Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable.
Though you shouldn’t have to endure awkward moments as described, discomfort comes with the territory of pursuing a life in business. Leverage discomfort to learn, grow and become a better leader. Let it drive your innovation and resourcefulness, opening business and networking opportunities.
- Advocate For Yourself.
You are solely in charge of looking after your best interests. Learning how to advocate for yourself is crucial. Confidently walk away from business opportunities if you must. Know your worth and keep moving forward until you identify opportunities that don’t jeopardize your safety, reputation, and credibility.
- Develop Your Network by Building, Maintaining, Leveraging, and Transitioning Relationships.
Be patient and build value. Strengthening your network does not happen overnight, I have been at it for 27 years. Once you are clear about what kind of network is needed, you can begin providing others value before you need resources. You decide how to build relationships that have value for the long term.
- Create Your Own Women’s Networking Group/Events
Provide a space for women to talk about issues that affect them specifically – whether it’s parenting, health, wellness, or flexible working, these topics need spaces to discuss. Even though this can be helpful to propel women in their field, you can have a women’s network while welcoming the contribution of men and their voice in the conversation. But I feel a network of women means more than enriching other women’s careers. Being part of the network brings a sense of belonging. You can forge lasting friendships and interact with people who have like-minded challenges and ambitions.
- Engage in Supportive Partnerships with Men.
Despite having been excluded, marginalized, objectified, and discriminated against, my biggest allies and mentors have always been morally centered, ethically minded men. Challenge your assumptions about men’s intentions, ability, and willingness (or lack thereof) to take an active role in creating gender equity and fair opportunities for all. Men experience bias too. There’s more to them than simply “being male.” They also experience their unique societal expectations and challenges. The bottom line is there are no sides: we are all in this together.