How Women Can Succeed in a Male-Dominated Workplace

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Despite recent progress, sexism and misogyny remain major issues in businesses and industries around the world. 

Women are massively underrepresented in high-paying STEM fields like programming and are “systematically tracked away” from science, math, and coding. Today, women make up only 28% of all STEM employees due to gender stereotypes and male-dominated work cultures. 

The issue extends beyond STEM fields, too. Only 35% of managers are women, and just 8.8% of Fortune 500 companies employ women at the leadership level. 

However, inspirational women leaders like Tsai Ing-wen and Rosalind Brewer prove that women can succeed in male-dominated workplaces. 

Barriers to Success

Pay Gap

It’s hard to believe that the gender pay gap remains an issue across the U.S. Yet, data from the Pew Center shows that the pay gap “has barely closed in the United States in the past two decades.”

American women still earn only 82 cents for every dollar and are less likely to increase their earning potential in step with men. Some claim that this disparity is caused by pregnancy periods and motherhood, yet the data shows that fathers actually earn more after having children. Meanwhile, employed mothers earn less than fathers who reenter the workforce after paternity leave. 

Additionally, educated women without children at home also earn less than fathers who work full-time. Efforts to close the gender pay gap have largely stalled despite the fact that more women are able to pursue higher education. This is likely due to underrepresentation in high-paying roles and STEM fields. 

Underrepresentation and Sexism

Representation matters. Folks who have role models to follow are far more likely to follow their dreams and pursue a career that brings them joy. However, many companies fail to track representation and are completely unaware of their gender bias at work. 

Without adequate representation, stereotypes and gender bias can become ingrained within male-dominated workplaces. Bias against women can turn any corporation into a hostile work environment and entrench misguided beliefs about sexuality and gender. 

Underrepresentation is a major issue in competitive fields like sales. Decades of sexism have led many to believe that women are incapable of thriving in fast-paced work environments. This is something that women like Zahra Jiva, a sales manager at Pipedrive, experience firsthand. 

Zahra explains that “Being taken seriously is one of the hardest things as a woman.” Zahra has even experienced moments “where customers preferred to talk to my male colleagues,” due to misguided beliefs about gender and credibility. 

The Women in the Workplace report also found that 55% of women in senior leadership had experienced some form of sexual harassment in their career — despite the fact that 98% of companies have policies in place to prevent sexual harassment. The reality is that only 32% of women think sexual harassment is dealt with swiftly, and few believe that reporting sexual harassment will lead to a fair process. I

Intersectional Issues

The barriers that women face are even more significant for folks who are not cis, white, straight, or “able-bodied.” The Women in the Workplace report found that women of color are generally more ambitious than white women yet are far less likely to feel supported in pursuing their career goals. 

LGBTQ+ women experience more microaggressions and demeaning comments than women overall. Disparaging comments about appearance or identity have no place in the professional workplace, yet many LGBTQ+ women are told that they don’t have an “executive appearance” because they don’t follow feminine-coded norms. 

Women with disabilities are more likely to face behavior that “others” them and have their competence undermined. This means that women with disabilities are less supported at work and have fewer opportunities to grow in their current companies.

Overcoming Bias

The challenges that women in male-dominated workplaces face are significant. However, with adequate support and systemic change, women can overcome gender bias and find professional success. If you ever encounter workplace discrimination or need legal guidance to protect your rights, consider seeking support from a qualified discrimination lawyer. For example, In Los Angeles, you can explore your options with a trusted Discrimination Lawyer Los Angeles who specializes in addressing workplace discrimination issues.

Leadership Initiatives

Overcoming gender bias requires a top-down approach. Women will only feel supported in their workplace if leaders follow their commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Without strong, progressive leadership initiatives, gender bias will continue to proliferate in male-dominated workplaces. 

Progressive employers can empower employees by funding education and leadership training that prepares women to climb the corporate ladder. Directly funding leadership training closes disparities in qualification and ensures that would-be women leaders have all the skills and resources they need to find success. 

Existing leaders should understand sexism and should be able to recognize the many forms it takes. However, well-intentioned leaders can only become allies to women if they have been trained to spot unconscious and conscious bias in the workforce. As such, businesses that care about gender bias should invest in training that helps women advance their careers

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is an issue that many employees and new hires struggle with. Early research indicates that women are more likely to report having imposter syndrome and may suffer from feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and low self-esteem. 

Leaders who care about overcoming gender bias should create supportive work environments that alleviate imposter syndrome and give women the confidence to pursue promotions and raises. For many, imposter syndrome is rooted in fear of failure and may be triggered by a need to be “the best” in their department or role. 

Empowering employees is the best way to help them navigate imposter syndrome. Leaders should set aside time in their calendars to highlight employees’ achievements and thank them for their hard work. Building a supportive work environment reduces feelings of competition and helps folks focus on the innate collaborative nature of work in the modern day.

Unions and Supportive Organizations

Businesses around the globe are waking up to the reality of gender bias and are doing their part to combat sexism and misogyny at work. However, many workplaces are ill-equipped to deal with discrimination and bias. 

Government organizations and unions exist to support women and champion gender equality across all workplaces. Organizations like Equal Rights Advocates help women navigate discrimination and play an active role in helping folks get compensation for lost wages and emotional distress. They also ensure women get reinstated following an unfair firing and can help women create a better work environment. 

Creating a Better Work Environment

Every work environment has its own unique culture. However, misogyny and sexism should never be permitted to thrive at work. Business leaders can minimize the risk of sexism and improve outcomes for women by crafting progressive, DEI-driven policies and best practices. 

Progressive HR Policies

Many businesses give lip service to gender equality and justice. However, few workplaces ingrain gender equity into their human resources (HR) policies. 

Effective HR policies are vital to the overall success of every business. HR policy can protect businesses from legal action and will attract top talent regardless of gender identity. 

Effective HR policies should see anti-discrimination policies as the minimum standard. Instead, HR professionals should go above and beyond their legal obligation and should revise core components of culture in the workplace. In particular, HR departments should: 

  • Adopt equitable hiring practices that improve representation;
  • Avoid gender-coded language in job adverts;
  • Craft a clear route to safely lodge complaints regarding sexual discrimination, harassment, or assault;
  • Regularly survey staff to better understand working conditions and gender disparities.

HR teams that take the lead and help other departments embrace DEI efforts that help women succeed in male-dominated workplaces. 

DEI Efforts

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs are a hot topic in progressive workplaces around the world. Effective DEI initiatives make meaningful changes to the fabric of business culture and ensure that everyone — regardless of gender, age, race, or ability — is given a fair opportunity to thrive at work. 

A recent White House press release on DEI and gender equality can give businesses a clear direction to follow. The White House advocates for an intersectional approach to DEI that advances economic security for women while promoting women’s access to healthcare, education, and leadership roles. 

Business leaders can do their part by ensuring that women at their place of work are fully supported. This means that businesses should invest more in benefit packages that support mental and physical well-being. This is particularly important in the contemporary moment when women’s access to healthcare has been undermined and many folks are working through the anxiety, trauma, and stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Mentorship Programs

An effective mentorship program is vital for the long-term success of any company. Without mentorship, employees will look elsewhere for career advancement and industry insights. Strong mentorship can help fix the “broken rung” between entry-level jobs and management positions, too. 

Mentorship is particularly important in fields where women are traditionally underrepresented. Businesses in industries like construction can help women overcome barriers by embracing reverse mentoring models. Reverse mentoring places a premium on new hires’ skills and ensures that the mentor-mentee model is equitable. This model harnesses the strengths of both employees and gives women a chance to show off their skills and prove their value in a safe environment. 

Funding Women’s Education

The systematic barriers that women face cannot be overcome with goodwill and well-intentioned business policy alone. Companies that authentically care about advancing gender equality have to invest in wide-scale efforts designed to close prevalent gender gaps. 

Businesses can start in their own backyard by funding education programs that directly relate to their business model. For example, tech-related firms should set aside some portion of their profits to fund non-profit organizations like Girls Who Code and STEM women.  

Investing in progressive non-profits is a boon for marketing departments and recruiters, too. It shows that a business is serious about its commitment to gender equality and is sure to attract the services of talented, highly qualified women. 


The barriers discussed may seem insurmountable. However, the strides made in the last several years are a step in the positive direction. If women and the companies that employ them continue to expand DEI efforts, fund women’s education, offer women-focused mentorship programs, and revamp HR policies, it’s more than possible for women to succeed in the modern workplace. It starts with recognizing biases and doing whatever you can to crush them.

I'm Allison Dunn,

Your Business Executive Coach

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