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Hidden Figures Day 40
Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), stands out amid her team of fellow mathematicians that helped send into orbit John Glenn in 'Hidden Figures'. Photograph by Hopper Stone—SMPS/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

Here’s How I Stopped Worrying About Being the Only Woman in the Room

Feb 06, 2017

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: “How do you excel in a male-dominated industry?” is written by Mary Godwin, VP of Operations at Qumulo.

The secret to excelling in a male-dominated industry is the same as it is in any industry: Be really good at your job. If you go into any work environment focused on whether or not you are in the minority vs. being focused on the work that you need to do, you will fail.

I learned this lesson the hard way. On my very first day of college, I sat in my very first class—Calculus 101—in total panic as guy after guy shuffled in. To say I “freaked out” when I realized that I was the only woman in the class is an understatement. It wasn’t that I was socially interested in any of my classmates, but it was the first time I had ever been in that type of “male-dominated” environment—and I was intimidated.

See also: How Working With Men Changed My Leadership Style for the Better

The problem was that I was so focused on my environment that I learned very little Calculus 101. After the midterm exam, I had to face the fact that I was going to fail if I didn’t get over my situation and focus on the course material. So I started spending my afternoons with a teaching assistant to get back on track. I did pass Calculus 101, but the real lesson I learned was that focusing on the work, regardless of the environment, was the only way that I was going to get through college.

Here’s the thing: In most cases when I have felt intimidated by my surroundings, a good part of that discomfort was caused by my own thoughts. In reality, no one in my Calculus 101 classroom cared that I was the only woman in the room. In my current daily work life, my male colleagues just want me to be good at my job. Make no mistake, there is a meritocracy associated with being the person who can fix a problem or lead a team to achieve a goal—but those skills transcend whether you are a man or a woman. Replacing your only-woman-in-the-room thoughts with “I’m the person my company hired to get this work done” takes the irrelevant noise out of the situation.

Remember: You’re in control. It’s easy to blame your environment when you are unsuccessful. But I know that whenever I start to go down that path in my thinking, if I pause and honestly self-reflect, I realize that my lack of success is almost always because I’m spending more time worrying about my work environment or the politics of a situation than about how to be excellent at my job.

So, decide. Are you going to spend your time learning your craft, holding yourself to a standard of excellence—being great at your job and invaluable to your male or female colleagues? Or, are you going to spend your time fretting that you might be the only woman in the room? Go with the former, and you'll be well on your way to success.

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