How Women Can Demand Attention in a Room Full of Men

August 11, 2016, 11:00 PM UTC
Businesswoman leading project discussion in office
Businesswoman leading project discussion during morning meeting in office
Photograph by Thomas Barwick via Getty Images

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 Elizabeth Boland, CFO at Bright Horizons Family Solutions.

If my sister ever overhears me tell someone what I do for a living—I’ll usually just say I work in finance or childcare—she always asks the same question: “You are the CFO of a large, multinational, publicly-traded company, so why not lead with that?”

And she’s right. I love my job, and I’m extremely proud of my role, my company, and the journey I’ve taken to get here. But for some reason, women in general—myself included—tend to downplay their achievements to avoid sounding like they’re bragging, or because they’re worried about making someone else feel insecure. But if we lead with humility and downplay our successes, how can we expect to instill confidence in our managers that we can do the job? And what kind of messages are we sending to younger professionals—women as well as men—about confident leadership?

I feel lucky to have had a mother who worked throughout my childhood. With a professional woman as my role model, I never questioned my role in the workforce. I attended Notre Dame, which had a seven-to-one male-to-female ratio at that time, and worked at Price Waterhouse when just about 35% of the staff was female (and just a fraction of that held the most senior roles). I’m used to being in the minority, and have learned a few things along the way to make sure my voice is heard in a sea of men.

While the childcare industry certainly isn’t dominated by men (quite the opposite, in fact), the capital markets and investor relations world is. In my role as CFO, I spend a great deal of my time on calls with men, sitting around large tables in meetings with them, and building relationships with them outside of the office. For women looking to excel in a male-dominated industry, here are a few tips:

Don’t be shy about offering your opinion
Men certainly aren’t shy about saying what’s on their minds, and we shouldn’t be either. Rather than waiting until you’ve reviewed all of the information to offer up your voice, take a cue from men and throw out your opinion. Everyone has gaps in their knowledge and skills base, and by waiting until you have all of the information to speak up, you could miss your opportunity.

See also: How Women Can Break Through in Male-Dominated Fields

Practice how to make your points quickly and emphatically
This sounds silly, but it’s something that really does take practice. By translating your points into language that’s succinct yet relevant, you can draw attention to yourself and, in turn, buy yourself airtime. Get your headlines out there, and don’t worry about interrupting. If you’re too polite or not persistent enough, you may never get your chance.

Stay true to yourself in how you conduct business with others
Even if it’s more “female” in nature, if you tend to be more collaborative, then be collaborative. If you’re exceptionally passionate about a particular topic, then be passionate. The more you cultivate your way of doing business and reinforce it, the more others will buy in. Don’t worry about traits being male or female, or young or old. Just be true to yourself.


Seek out a mentor
Several female (and male) business leaders have spoken about the value of associating with a mentor. I’ve underestimated at times how important having a mentor as a sounding board can be—until I’ve needed one. While a mentor can be male or female, there’s something invaluable about finding another female professional who can lend an ear and give you perspective and tips on how to respond to a certain work crisis or issue with a colleague.

I’ve always believed that if you can do the job, you will be given the chance. At the end of the day, the key to success is the same for both men and women, so don’t be afraid to exude confidence, showcase your strengths, offer strong opinions, and stay true to yourself.