How to be a leading lady in a male dominated environment

Kim Bendzak, MD of Apple Construction Training, knows all too well the challenges of getting ahead in a male-dominated industry. Here are her tips for other women looking to make their way in a man's world.

by Kim Bendzak
Last Updated: 02 Jan 2013

Recent research from the High Pay Centre and The Guardian show that in Britain only 19% of top management positions are women and female representation on boards is still as low as 17%. 

Here are some tips for women - and men - on overcoming the challenges and maximising on the benefits of working a predominantly male environment.

Trust your gut instinct

My 'gut feel’ has always provided great insight and guidance when making decisions. In my experience, women in general do have great intuition but it's trusting that judgement and having the guts to 'go for it' that can hold some female leaders back.  Sometimes, by the time you've gathered the facts and figures to make a decision, it can be too late to act.  On occasion be brave, follow your gut and act!

Challenge the norm

Have belief in yourself even when others around you may be doing things differently. As a women, especially within a senior position, you will often find yourself outnumbered by men, who do tend to look at matters from a different perspective.

For example, even though construction is in decline I've pushed ahead with creating a sales team that is focused on growth. This challenges the industry norm to pull down the shutters and ride out the storm with many business owners slimming down workforces and focusing on business retention rather than expansion.

Sometimes thinking too much and worrying what everyone else is doing can hold you back.  It comes back to trusting your instinct and not being afraid to share or act on your ideas. Having the courage to push ahead, even if you are entering unknown territory, can pay dividends.  

Listen, watch and observe

The University of Miami recently found that women prefer female leaders with 'Thatcheresque', masculine voices.  I can't claim to have a deep 'Thatcheresque' voice but it's not always about what you say but what you do that counts.  Being a good listener is critical to being an excellent manager. It is a strength that a lot of women possess and a skill that they can build on to become successful in business, especially when faced with a boardroom of men all trying to voice their opinions.  

When you're managing a team meeting, don't always listen to the ones that can shout the loudest otherwise good talent could be going to waste.  Try and coax ideas out of other team members who might otherwise not speak up.  This helps to get the best out of the talent in the company.  Sometimes the quiet ones are the ones who have watched and taken note of everything and have the most intelligent observations on issues or ideas.  

Empathy and understanding  

Psychologist and Cambridge University professor Simon Baron-Cohen noted in his studies of the female brain that women tend to be more empathetic than men. Whist you can't run a team and be their best buddy at the same time, as there are times when taking a tough stance is necessary, being kind and compassionate in certain circumstances is a good trait in getting the best out of your staff.  For example, the pressures of raising a family while trying to work full time, and being flexible in allowing them to work from home can go a long way in strengthening the loyalty and commitment of your staff.

There are those who view empathy as a weakness. But times are changing and these views are gradually dying out. Women mustn't be scared to show their softener, more feminine side but use it to the advantage of their business.  According to Margaret Heffernan, former BBC Producer turned CEO and author of How She Does It: How Women Entrepreneurs Are Changing the Rules of Business, empathy and vision go hand in hand. Empathy enables women to  look at business issues through a wide angle lens compared to men who tend to have tunnel vision. Such a skill can only but help a business to grow and expand in ways that will help get ahead of the competition.

Best of both worlds

Whilst women do bring certain qualities and skills to a team, and many go on to make excellent managers and leaders,  having both genders on board ensures your business benefits from the best of both worlds. Having a range of characteristics, interpretations and opinions on matters is of value to any company.  As a business leader, it's about getting the best from these traits to help support in moving your company forward.

Kim Bendzak, Managing Director of Apple Construction Training

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