Managing female employees in male dominated workplaces

Managing female employees in male dominated workplaces, on the face of it, should be no different than managing female employees in any work environment. Recent research published by Harvard Business School shows us that this isn’t the case.

The research concluded that women engineers have a visibility problem. Like women in other ultra-masculine sectors, they are often excessively visible as women, but overlooked when it comes to their technical expertise. This paradox gets in the way of forming relationships at work and hurts their advancement. The interviewees agreed that the female body stands out in their workplaces in a sexualised way.

One interviewee said that no matter what the work was that she was doing, some colleagues seemed to see her primarily as a potential date. Another said that rather than the quality of her work being the focus of attention, the way in which she looked in her overalls was a more common topic of conversation.

The interviewees spoke at length about how their competence was obscured by their gender. They said that they felt sexually objectified, and they had to work harder than men to prove their technical competence. If employers want to become more supportive about managing female employees in male dominated workplaces this research gives some clues about how they can do this. The researchers found that female employees in these situations use four strategies to deal with sexual visibility.

1. They conform to “unchallenging” gender stereotypes

Examples of this are adopting behaviour akin to that of a sister or daughter when interacting with men, reducing the focus on their sexuality and allowing them to concentrate on their job. It seems more likely that this strategy will be used by women early on in their careers. Rosy said “I’ve got blond hair and I make blond jokes and I’ll say, “Yeah, I know I’m asking a stupid question. Tell me what you’re doing. Tell it to me like I’m a five-year-old.” They’re like a bunch of my big brothers or my dad, and playing the girlie card a little bit sometimes can help diffuse some of those situations”

2. Embracing female stereotypes

Only a small minority of female employees use this strategy. Those that do are more likely to be in mid-career. This involves the woman emphasising their dress, hair, make-up and nails whilst demonstrating high levels of competence. Those women that used this strategy recognised that it was potentially high risk, that it only worked because they were highly competent. They recognised that any technical error could backfire.

3. Downplaying their gender

The most popular strategy was women presenting themselves conservatively so as not to draw attention to their gender and avoiding being sexualised. Women using this approach carefully managed their appearance and interactions. They choose unremarkable clothing and moderate their behaviour and interaction to avoid any possibility of gossip. One interviewee said “I’ll be friendly but not too friendly, I don’t want to be misinterpreted. I want to be respected”. The researchers found that the women who used this approach were keen for others to behave likewise. They felt that “toning it down” made life easier for everybody.

4. Trying to be “one of the boys”

Some female employees who were interviewed went further than others. They did this by actively camouflaging their femininity, looking and talking like a man. This strategy seems to be adopted more by women later in their careers. Researchers concluded that this may be due to the lack of female role models in male dominated spaces when these women started work. Interestingly, this approach is double-edged. Female employees who behave in this way ofter faced a back-lash being harshly judged by both male and female colleagues. Even name-calling was used as part of this judgement, for example being called “the ice queen” or “Cruella”. These women said that the approach successfully drew attention away from their sexuality and toward their engineering competence allowing them to progress

How can employers improve the way they are managing female employees in male dominated workplaces ?

In the first instance, acknowledge and challenge stereotypes. What is potentially at work is something called Implicit Bias, bias that we all have based on a number of experiences and beliefs that we have. Implicit Bias Training, or at least a concerted effort to challenge biased thinking has a role to play. However, not as a one-off quick fix.

Starting by removing stereotypical assumptions from recruitment, training and development, and promotion are a key first step. Take promotions, for example. Well-worn criteria about who is ready to advance cannot be taken for granted. They should be reviewed each time to ensure that they are applied in a systematic and transparent way to all candidates.


Do you have an employee found to be driving over the limit ? Do you need some advice on how to handle the situation? Then call Metis HR now on 01706 565 332 or email us to arrange a confidential, no obligation initial consultation.

Metis HR is a professional HR Consultancy based in the North West of England supporting clients across the country. We specialise in providing outsourced HR services to small and medium-sized businesses.


Managing female employees in male dominated workplaces


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