10 Ways to thrive in a male dominated career field

I am woman and I am an engineer.

Lately, I have been speaking to young females about how it is being a woman in a male dominated field. I have also been getting emails and questions about how difficult it is to work in a male dominated field.  They have also asked me how I’ve done it.

Aixa Lopez, Industrial Engineer, male-dominated field

Aixa Lopez, Industrial Engineer

To tell you the truth, after 20 plus years in this career, I am still dealing with some situations. I have good days and okay days. At the beginning of my career it was shocking and extremely emotional. I faced everything; from sexist comments, harassment, humiliation, jokes, boredom, to being accused of being emotional and/or weak.

I am in my 40s now and I still face some of those comments. However, the difference now is my reaction to all of this nonsense. I would like to share some of the things I have done to deal with this and also how I have been able to make progress and move forward:

  1. Never forget why you got into this field– if you decided to study a STEM field career is because you were interested in the field and you were good at it. Something attracted you to this career. Never forget that!  Keep yourself current in the topics, take classes, and read about new STEM initiatives. That will help you feel more confident when you are in a meeting or a networking event with your male and female peers.
  2. Know what your strengths and weaknesses are– we all have strengths and weaknesses. Acknowledging them will help you capitalize on your strengths and reach out for help on your weaknesses. Reaching out to male colleagues is a positive thing. When you ask them for help is a way of telling them “I am not here to fight with you but to learn from you and work with you“. It’s very liberating for both parts.
  3. Speak up “not only” when you have something important to say– men are really good at this. We tend to stay silent in meetings (I am guilty of this). We think that we should talk only when there’s something extremely important to say. Men talk!  I am not telling you that you should do the same BUT,  there are smart ways to participate in the conversation even when you don’t have a lot to say. Asking questions is one of them. When I think I have nothing to say, I try to ask questions. You can ask: “Really, how did you learn about that? or How do feel with that experience?“.  Questions like these will make you part of the conversation and will give you the chance to learn and to share your own experiences.
  4. Read about topics outside of your career field– one thing that I’ve learned is that men talk about everything; even if they are not an expert in the topic. Read about what’s going around the world so that you can at least have a notion of current events.  If you have no idea of the topic they are discussing, like when they are talking about cars (topic that I personally hate), then ask questions. For example: “What is so good about that car? or Well, I don’t know a lot about cars, is it expensive? “. This will make them want to teach you and engage with you and you will end up learning about something you didn’t know before.

Portrait of woman engineer working on building site

5. Respect yourself and learn when to say “no”– I do not like revealing clothes. I have never liked them. Sometimes I have been accused of dressing too conservative because they expect women to show their “assets”. I personally hate people staring at my “assets” and I do not feel guilty for that. The same happens with “drinking alcohol”. When I’m in networking events, I like to be in control of myself. So, if someone makes a comment about why I am not drinking more, I’d say that I have enough with just a glass of wine.  Speaking the truth is always a positive thing.  People will respect you for that.

6. Being a woman is not a sin or something to excuse yourself about– I love high heels. I worked in construction for a long time and I had to visit construction projects. I always wore high heels and had a backpack with my boots so I could change and go to the site visits. For some reason, men felt uncomfortable with that. They always had to make a comment about it.  I remember one time when a colleague said to me “you are an engineer, why are you wearing high heels? My answer (in a very nice tone): Yes, you are right, I am engineer but before becoming one, I was a woman and I love high heels; being an engineer is in my brain not on my feet.” Smile and Case Closed!

7. Ignore comments that are not worth arguing about – There will always be people that make dumb comments (women and men).  Sometimes, you just have to ignore them.  Do not lose your temper or even your job for someone that is not worth arguing with.

8. Respect people but don’t be naive– I respect everyone. I treat everyone with respect and give everyone credit for what they do/say. However, sometimes people may take advantage of you. Just be aware and cautious. Observe, listen, and learn from experience who is trustworthy. That will save you a lot of disappointments.

9. Know when to detach from your emotions – women are always accused of being emotional and in a way we are emotional human beings. However, we need to learn when not to be. At the beginning of my career I was always crying. Any “constructive” criticism that I received made me cry. I received some great feedback from some of my male supervisors but I always took it personal. That made me aware of how men looked at the working environment. I have learned how to disconnect myself from comments that are vicious but also to take advantage of comments that are constructive. That’s how you grow.

Aixa Lopez with her daughter Andrea male-dominated field

Aixa Lopez with her daughter Andrea

10. Embrace who you are and what contributions you can make– I studied engineering because I like fixing things. I became an Industrial Engineer because I like efficiency, productivity, and people. I can look at space or at a process and from the get go a million ideas come to my mind on how to make it more efficient. It’s like magic! Embrace what you are capable of, show it to the world and let them see what you can do. That is what you are here for. Never feel guilty of your value as a professional and as a human being.


The bottom line

Career development is a work in progress. You have to continuously work on it and redefine your goals. There’s nothing wrong with making tough decisions such as quitting a job, redefining yourself, or trying a new field. Do not give up!

Keep pushing and do what you love. Do not let others define your career. If you want to leave your job because you are not good at it, then do it.  However, if you are good at it, do not let others discourage you.

Get up and show the world what you can do!