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Life Lessons from My First Job Working in a Male Dominated Industry

Decades later, many of my life lessons are still applicable for women today

In the early 90’s when Mark Wahlberg was still Marky Mark and before Seinfeld and Friends were reruns, my first day on the job was like stepping onto a movie set. Instrument panels bedazzled with digital sensors, analog gauges, brightly lit buttons and metal switches lined the walls of the control room. Four men wearing faded-blue cotton jumpsuits sat at a massive, curved control panel in the center of the room, taking readings. I genuinely would not have been surprised to see Chekov and Scotty from Star Trek.

One of the Jumpsuits noticed me standing in the doorway — a long-haired, 22-year-old woman in obviously brand-new steel-toed boots. He nudged the other Jumpsuits, and they all stared, confused. For a few moments, the only noise in the room came from the beep-beep-beep of some instruments, accompanied by a soft mechanical whirr. Swallowing, I wondered if I could handle this new environment.

That was the auspicious start to my first professional writing position as a procedure writer at a spent nuclear fuel waste processing facility, where my colleagues were overwhelmingly men, my parents’ age or older.

Here at InHerSight, we shed light on women's experiences in the workplace to create a support system for working women everywhere  as a form of mentorship. Today, women are changing the demographics in many fields, but it's still a common experience to work in male-dominated environments.

At the time, I approached my job with the earnest enthusiasm of a newly graduated anthropology major. I dedicated myself to learning everything I could about facility operations. I was responsible for writing step-by-step instructions for different phases of spent nuclear fuel waste processing, ensuring quality assurance and regulatory compliance, and ensuring the safety and health of the workers.

Along the way, I learned a lot about organizational dynamics and the interactive challenges of gender and age differences. Much of what I learned at the plant has helped me succeed in later careers, and I am grateful for that wonderful first job. Here is what I tell other young women just beginning their professional journeys:

Build Relationships

I was starting my career at that point and felt comfortable admitting I was in learning mode. The facility operators and procedure reviewers respected my humility as I worked to gain mastery of the knowledge base. I studied the goings-on at the plant, voluntarily working night shifts to shadow the Jumpsuits. I took training classes and asked thousands of questions. I loved the complexity of my task, and it showed.

My practical approach to learning helped me gain my colleagues' respect. They knew I did my homework, and I learned to quell my nervousness by being informed and prepared.

I also got to know my colleagues as individuals. To stand out in male-dominated fields, women must avoid fading into the background. It is so important for us to socialize with male coworkers, as this personal connection is key to building a strong team. I learned about their families and hobbies and shared information about myself. Yes, some of the men treated me like a daughter, but they were also invested in helping me succeed. As a beginner, I learned to laugh at my mistakes and be comfortable with asking for input.

I never quite got the hang of talking sports — it’s just not my thing — but I did come to accept bad jokes as part of the language of connecting. However, I didn’t allow interactions to continue if they made me uncomfortable. I developed the skill of firmly changing the subject and moving conversations along when they verged on inappropriate, and fortunately, my coworkers did not press the subject.

Don’t hesitate to get a cup of coffee or to join the team for lunch or drinks after work. For men, this is an integral part of building trust and collaborative relationships with coworkers. Men talk about work issues and make decisions together during these moments — so if you’re not there, you’re not part of the team.

Learn the Language of Confidence

In this job, I not only needed to know the technical details of facility operations and regulations, but I also needed the ‘command presence' to lead teams of male colleagues. I watched what leaders did and mirrored their body language. I learned to physically take up more space at the conference room table, to speak succinctly and with a more measured pace. And although I am naturally a fast talker, I learned to pause after making statements instead of filling the silence with explanations. Even the words you use to express your thoughts can help to convey competence and authority. Men and women often communicate in what seems like two different languages , and becoming bilingual is essential.

My anthropology background helped me step back emotionally and figure out what would help me succeed in that work culture. It was so fascinating to see how little changes made such a difference in how my colleagues interacted with me. It may feel awkward at first, but you can teach yourself confident body language. You’ll reap the benefits throughout your career.

Take Yourself Seriously

My last piece of advice to young women is this: take yourselves seriously. Many women (and men) struggle with imposter syndrome throughout their careers. Imposter syndrome is a crippling psychological belief that you are a fraud, that your accomplishments are all just luck, and that you’re going to be exposed and fired.

When you start experiencing imposter syndrome, reach out to close friends and ask for perspective. They can reaffirm that you are doing well in your job. There are many online resources for banishing imposter syndrome, but I particularly like the work of Valerie Young, author of the award-winning book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. Watch her TED Talk: “Thinking your way out of imposter syndrome.”

By Deborah Hill

Deborah Hill is a writer, communications strategist, and anthropologist who is fascinated by the ways humans and businesses interact.

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