What's a Girl to Do?

The four myths of being a female in a male-dominated profession.

by / July 17, 2007

The words on MSN.com glared, "Fewer jobs are dominated by men or women," but look a little deeper and you still find that four out of five top paying "male-dominated" jobs are IT related, with females making up a measly 9 percent to 24 percent of the work force for those professions, according to Rachel Zupek of CareerBuilder.com, who wrote the article, The Gender Wars at Work, in June. The good news: The profession of IT project manager, also considered a top-paying job, makes the list of those not dominated by either gender. Another piece of good news - according to the same article, the pay gap between men and women continues to shrink. 

Rewind 15 or so years, and the IT profession is a lonely place for a female. Computer science classes in college are 90 percent to 95 percent male and the IT workplace is definitely testosterone driven. So what's a girl to do? As a female IT professional who served in the public sector for more than 17 years and rose to the highest levels of local government IT leadership - the position of CIO - I often get asked, "How did you do it, especially as a female in a male-dominated profession?"

I can sum it up in a one-liner that I'm often heard saying, "It wasn't always pretty, but we got the job done!" With that said, I often share a few pieces of advice that work well for women and men alike. First, let's take a look at four myths of being a female in a male- dominated profession, then I'll share some advice.

Myth #1: You have to work twice as hard as a man to progress half as much. I can say it's true that I had to work hard - even twice as hard as anyone on some occasions - to rise up through the ranks into a leadership position. As Colin Powell so eloquently said, "There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure."

Myth #2: To succeed in a male-dominated profession, you must behave like a man.  I can unequivocally say that this myth is false. My experience is that you improve yourself by watching and learning from everyone regardless of gender. Look for what works and try it out. Watch, too, for what doesn't lead to success and avoid it. 

My career success was rooted in a few things I learned from the men in my life like promoting yourself - find the balance between ensuring your good work is noticed and bragged about. To my female colleagues - learn this one quickly since putting your head down, working hard and expecting others to notice won't get you anywhere. 

I've also learned to act confidently even when unsure of what I'm doing or when doing something for the first time. Also, be a team player - more brains equal better work product. Finally, know when to walk away. If others let you walk away during negotiations, they're really making their best offer, or in the workplace, accept that sometimes you just can't make things turn out right, no matter how hard you try.

Myth #3: Tough men are labeled aggressive, tough women - bitches.  Like it or not, my experience has proven this myth is true. If you know me personally, you know that I'm direct and demanding. These personality traits have led to being labeled the b-word on many occasions although my actions were similar to those of my male colleagues. My advice, use it as a reminder to ensure that you're being fair and honest in your dealings. If so, move on. You aren't running for Ms. Congeniality.

Myth #4: Blondes are dumb. While not necessarily a myth about gender, I had to throw this one in. My experience is that you have the edge when others make these types of assumptions. Don't bother to correct them, just take advantage of the situation when your abilities are being underestimated and blow right by them.

What else works? When asked, I offer a few other general pieces of advice. 

First, a sense of humor, especially the ability to laugh at oneself, is indispensable.

Second, know yourself, both your strengths and weaknesses. Use your strengths and hire for your weaknesses.

Along the same lines, surround yourself with good people. You know you have the right people working for you when you fear, just a little, that they'll soon have your job! 

Be a risk taker - take the job no one has ever done or others don't want.

Finally, believe in others. Look for the diamond in the rough, and you'll be pleasantly surprised at how often people will rise to your expectations.

Remember, the upside of being a woman in a male-dominated profession - no lines for the ladies rooms!


            Liza Lowery Massey served in the public sector nearly 20 years as an IT executive before leaving to establish The CIO Collaborative to provide public-sector research, benchmarking and consulting services. In addition, Massey is an adjunct professor in the College of Business for the Executive MBA program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
            Massey's work in the public sector includes stints as CIO of Los Angeles and as executive director of San Francisco's Department of Telecommunications and Information Services. In 2004, she was recognized nationally in the Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers of IT in Government Technology magazine.

Liza Lowery Massey
Liza Lowery Massey served as a public-sector IT executive for nearly 20 years, including as CIO of Los Angeles. She then established the CIO Collaborative to provide public-sector research, benchmarking and consulting services. She also teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas