Overcoming Challenges in Male-Dominated Industries

Overcoming Challenges In Male Dominated Industries

Though women make up 46.5% of Australia’s workforce, some industry’s participation rates are considerably skewed. For example, health care and social services have a high percentage of females, with around 77% of workers identifying as women. In stark contrast, women in construction represent only 11.8% of the total industry workforce.

With such a small proportion of women in these ‘boys’ club’ industries (mining and utilities also fall into this category), it makes sense that women who perform managerial roles in male-dominated workplaces may face unique challenges.

Challenges women face in male-dominated industries

An investigative study spoke to a number of women in male-dominated industries to identify common issues presented in their daily experiences. These issues included both formal and covert organisational practices that maintained discrimination and bias, such as:

Structural issues including resources and policies

Often, women will accept a position only to discover there are no resources suited to their needs. They may find policies that either don’t support women in the workplace or actively exclude them. For example, some women reported not having changing rooms available to them (where men in the same team or location had ample space assigned). Others reported discriminatory policies surrounding pregnancy and maternity leave.

Perception of – and actual – gender-specific bias

When women work in non-traditional roles, it’s still seen as something of a novelty. Because of this, many women felt there was a lack of social, emotional and work support available to them. The underlying assumptions surrounding gender roles has had a negative effect on organisational culture, putting females at a disadvantage.

Workplace culture

Many women shared the experience of males in their workplace displaying vindictive and/or unsupportive behaviour. This impacted their ability to both do their job and feel comfortable in the workplace. A researcher from Northwestern University stated in a study that female leaders face a double-bind: “[women] are expected to be communal because of the expectations inherent in the female gender role, and they are also expected to be agentic because of the expectations inherent in most leader roles”.

Coping with and overcoming these challenges

So what options do women have in these situations? Do they ‘man up’ and become ‘one of the boys’? Do they take advantage of their ‘feminine’ qualities, like empathy and nurturing, in order to stand out from the blokes and offer some new perspectives to the organisation?

Research shows there isn’t one single strategy for success that will work across different situations. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology in 2011 found that women can face backlash for “violating the feminine gender role stereotype” if they display typically male qualities. However, a different study and meta-analysis published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly found the opposite – women who portray themselves as having traits typically associated with masculinity tend to achieve greater heights in the workplace and experience less hardship.

Toolkit for women facing challenges in management roles

Having practical strategies can be helpful when faced with discrimination or resistance in the workplace.

  • Vary between ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ skill sets or attributes as needed

  • Work with a mentor in the industry

  • Focus on the positive elements of the job instead of dwelling on the negative

  • Speak up about discriminatory hiring or promotion practices

  • Call for recruiting practices that actively encourage women to apply

  • Support fellow women in the workplace.

These approaches were echoed in the study that investigated the challenges women face in male-dominated industries. They can be split into two main elements, which we’ve explored in more detail.

1. Coping strategies and resources:

Appreciation of feminine advantage

Whether this is an ingrained identity issue or a reliance on appearance to gain acceptance, there were some women who used their gender to their advantage in male-dominated workplaces. Of course, this approach involves the risk of being deemed unsuitable for tasks or roles that require abilities typically ascribed to men.

Adopting male characteristics

Adjusting behaviours to align more with masculine traits is a common coping tactic. Because males typically determine the selection criteria for roles, and also end up determining the successful candidate, there’s a strong case for doing this. When women display a combination of male attributes and self-monitoring, they are presented with increased opportunities for promotions and recognition.


Having a mentor, especially a female mentor from the same industry, is a wonderful way to build skills and knowledge. If they’re currently holding a position of power and respect, even better – their reputation can help bolster the reputation of others, lending authority to the mentee as they build their own profile within the business.

2. Acknowledging motivational aspects of the work:

Despite the challenges, women who accept roles in these industries often develop tough skin and choose to persevere. They are reported to have an optimistic expectation of future career possibilities – for example, the skills they develop in these challenging positions will be valuable when it comes to securing roles of higher levels. After all, to succeed in spite of adversity says a lot about a person’s character and tenacity.

They also tend to focus on the challenging and engaging nature of the work. By dedicating themselves to the job at hand, they were able to let the politics go as they became accustomed to their role.

Recognition and success was also critical to women’s perseverance. While this doesn’t always have to be official, small things like having male colleagues nominate them as safety representatives or coming to them for advice can make a huge difference to women’s work satisfaction and effectiveness in male-dominated industries.

Changing organisational culture

Of course, none of the strategies above touch on shifting workplace culture in a way that creates long-term change. At the root of attitude adjustments in the past was a woman brave enough to fight the status quo. Not that long ago, women weren’t even found on-site at mines – they were behind the desks, working in administration jobs. Trailblazing isn’t the only way to have a real impact on the way businesses in these industries see women, though.

Depending on your exact role and authority, you may be able to influence hiring policies and procedures. Hiring is often affected by levels of subconscious bias, which has been shown to be an issue for hiring managers of both genders. Removing names and using numbered systems can help reduce subconscious gender bias, allowing applicants a fairer selection process.

Alternatively, you may be able to implement recruitment campaigns that target women. Many women still believe that these industries ‘aren’t for them’, and never even consider the idea of working in mining, utilities, construction or trades. You don’t need a line of pink pickup trucks to make it appealing – just stating that it’s possible to succeed in industries not typically associated with women could be enough.

And perhaps the most undervalued way to shift workplace culture in male-dominated industries is one that any women can do – support your fellow women in the industry. Whether it’s a refusal to join in the blokey banter about a female colleague, or publicly congratulating a woman on her achievements, standing up for other women both sets the standards of behaviour for the entire organisation and helps co-workers feel valued and supported.

Creating change in industries that place a high value on gender roles and identities can be a battle, and it’s one women shouldn’t have to take on alone.

Jamie Devitt, GM Client Development, says “unpacking, redesigning, and refreshing a company’s value proposition is really a must in order to start changing organisational culture. Even recruitment processes aren’t immune – they must be reviewed in order to purge them of inherent biases”.

Below is a list of links to support programs specifically for women in non-traditional positions. Join, follow, or just find solidarity from the fact that other women are facing similar challenges.




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