In 15 years working on construction sites, Michelle has worked with another woman once—otherwise it’s her and anything from five to 2,000 men. She has coped with this by developing a work persona. “I take up as much room as I can. I change my tone. I swear more,” she said. “Not so much now, but five years ago, my husband would say when I came back from the site, ‘Okay, drop your balls at the door. You’re at home now.’”
Michelle’s behaviour is common among women who work in male-dominated workplaces. But what other changes do women make to fit in—and how do they affect their career and sense of self at work and at home?
Being the “only one” is still a common experience for women in the workplace. According to the 2018 Women in the Workplace report, one in five women often find themselves the only woman, or one of the only women, in the room at work. This has a significant psychological impact because you are under pressure to fit in. “You lose yourself, which is a shame,” said Michelle. “It’s something that now I really fight against.”
Straight white men can also be the “only one” in the office, but their experience differs significantly from women in the same position. Some 51% of women who work among men have felt under pressure to prove their competence compared with 20% of men in the same situation.
Coping with criticism
The Women in the Workplace report also found that four out of five women who work in a male-dominated environment face microaggressions at work, something that firefighter Amy* has experienced.
In England, fewer than 7% of firefighters are female and Amy is the only woman at her station in the north of England. In her four years on the job, she has experienced everything from overexaggerated criticisms of her work to outright bullying and harassment from colleagues. After she won an award for being the best firefighter in her area, the response from her colleagues stung. “They ignored me,” she said. “They wouldn’t speak to me. To this day they’ve never said well done.”
Amy’s colleagues are also quick to criticise her. “I’ve known it where I’ve made a mistake and it’s practically got around half the service within 20 minutes. Whereas my male counterparts have made the same mistake, and they’ve been told, ‘Well, you won’t do that again.’ I feel as if I’m constantly being watched, and even the slightest errors are magnified.”
As a result, she tries to detract attention from herself. Amy describes herself as a naturally happy, bubbly person—but she doesn’t act like this at work. “They don’t want to see that. So I just keep quiet, put that away. I keep myself to myself,” she said.
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Looking the part
Software engineer Lena manages herself at work in a different way. She is one of ten women in a department of around 100 employees. In a previous job, Lena was the only woman in a team of more than 60 men, something she would never do again. “They would steal ideas, intentionally exclude me from both technical and social meetings, discard what I said then repeat my suggestions in the next meeting as their own. Now I have a rule: I do not consider teams with more than 20 men and zero women,” she said.
Lena studied software engineering at university and was used to a masculine environment, yet when she started her previous job she changed her appearance. “I felt the need to fit in by wearing jeans and hoodies,” she said. Even in her current workplace, where there is more balance, she is conscious of the way she presents herself. “I feel the need to be louder, to take up more physical space, to be somehow memorable,” she said. One easy way to do this is by wearing distinctive jewelry or clothes, but it’s hard to find the right balance. “They can’t be too feminine, as I would be considered less competent or distracting.”
She has the same feeling of external pressure as Amy; a niggling feeling that she cannot relax at work. “I have to stay alert all the time,” she said.
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Developing a thick skin
Michelle avoids wearing skinny jeans when she is on building sites as she has been told they are a distraction to male colleagues, and wouldn’t wear make-up. The one time she did, “it just created too much attention”. But she has also gone through something more difficult to hide: two pregnancies. She recalls her first pregnancy: “I was doing petrol stations with the general public walking by, so it’s strange for them to see a woman, and then to see a pregnant woman was like a double whammy.” Her colleagues on the ground knew she was pregnant and were very supportive, which she says is typical. The vast majority of her difficulties at work have come from male managers.
Still, during her first pregnancy especially, she felt the need to appear strong at work. “Physically it was very hard,” she said. “And mentally, it was very hard, because I wanted to be able to do the job. They didn’t understand the physical toll it takes on your body.” On site, she would work as normal, but when she had the chance she’d take a drive and have a 15-minute nap. “I always felt like I needed to be almost overdoing it to prove that I could do both,” she said.
For firefighter Amy, showing strength has come to mean hiding her emotions. Her job can involve dealing with horrific events. Afterwards the team returns to the fire station. “They’ll start making brews and we’ll have some cake. And no one talks about it,” she said. “I can see in their eyes, it’s very obvious to me that they are suffering. But they never discuss anything openly.” In turn, Amy has also had phases at work and at home where she withdraws emotionally. “I’ve become numb to certain things, and I’ve had to develop very thick skin,” she said.
Joining in with the banter
A 2018 study by the Institute of Leadership & Management measured the effects of banter in the workplace. Its findings showed that banter causes men and women some anxiety at work, but both genders also use it as a way to bond with colleagues. One of the most significant differences between genders is its negative effect on a woman’s sense of self-belief—one in five women said it had caused them to lose confidence at work.
This is not the case for Michelle, who generally enjoys the on-site jokes. “You can’t take things too seriously and I learnt very quickly that you have to push back,” she said. It helps that she is quick with a good comeback. Her unease comes from the disconnect between some of the topics she laughs about at work and her real values. “There are things that I say at work that I wouldn’t dream of saying in front of my husband, because it’s that male banter. And I don’t need to impress him, I don’t need to fit in. Whereas at work I have felt like I do, so I might say something that actually doesn’t align with who I am, especially when I was in my 20s because I so desperately wanted to fit in.”
Will things get better?
A 2020 study by Ranstad asked 4,200 construction workers why women leave the industry. Almost half (47%) said it was due to the male-dominated culture while 30% said it was because of outright discrimination. Michelle describes this as a chicken-and-egg scenario: “The more women we get in, the more chance to have a change in the culture, but the culture also kills more women getting in.” She considers her own career successful, partly due to her work persona. “It should be about being able to go on to a job, and through your own capabilities do that job, no matter what gender you are,” she said. “But other girls probably do have to adapt like I did to make life a little bit easier. And that does nothing for the future.”
Lena feels the same. She blames a “mentally unhealthy work environment, glass ceiling and sticky floor” for women leaving the computer science industry. However, she has hope for the future, notably because she spends a “good chunk” of her spare time running a women’s coding group in London. “Straight out of university, I felt very competitive towards women, because that’s what patriarchy teaches us… Now I am a strong believer that women should support each other,” she said.
For Amy, change is happening slowly but surely. Female firefighters are still very much a minority, but the latest figures show that 16.6% of new recruits in 2018/19 were female. “It’s like a seesaw that’s going to tip soon,” said Amy. “The younger, newer firefighters, they come in with a modern approach. The right approach.” Until then, she will continue working in the fire service. “I love my job,” she said. “And I’m not a victim. I don’t see myself as a victim. I see myself as just getting stronger.”
*-Names have been changed
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