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 Heather Rangel, principal in Deloitte’s Global Employer Services practice.
As the technology sector leader for Deloitte’s U.S. tax practice, most of my clients are men. But it wasn’t always that way. I spent most of my career working in global employer services, which primarily serves the HR function, an area women tend to dominate. So when I made the transition to a broader leadership role in the tech industry, one thing quickly became clear to me: You do need a strategy for being a woman in the workplace, especially when your clients are predominantly male. And while there’s no single approach that works for all women, there are a few guideposts I’ve used that have helped to navigate my career:
Go for authenticity
One piece of advice I often heard early on in my career was to look for role models in other women and try to emulate them. I also received a lot of “tips” on how to dress and present myself in the workplace. A common one: “Never wear anything but clear nail polish. It will distract people from your message.” That’s a piece of advice I actually followed for a decade—until I decided it was nonsense. When I looked around me, I realized that successful women don’t follow a single path when it comes to style or presence. What they do have in common is a level of comfort with themselves and confidence in the value they bring to their work. I found that authenticity not only builds trust with my colleagues and clients, but it also creates a solid foundation for collaboration—and that’s far more important than one’s style.
Don’t try to ignore the elephant in the room
Now comes the contradiction to my first point: Perception is reality. There is still a double standard for women in the workplace at many organizations. Letting that cripple or irritate you isn’t going to help, but neither is ignoring it. Networking in a male-dominated industry can indeed be tricky. Can you invite a male client out for a drink or a concert without giving the wrong impression? Where is the line? I have come to accept certain limitations and have drawn up my own personal guidelines—which sometimes err on the side of being conservative, like keeping networking meetings to coffee near the office—not because this is how it should be, but because it makes life easier for me.
Find your allies and leverage their support
I have carefully built up my personal board of directors. It’s made up of men and women within my organization who are supportive of getting women’s voices heard and fostering collaboration. Early on in my career, I used to shy away from forming close ties with other professional women, leery that it might be perceived as promoting a “we vs. them” attitude. But now I believe that it’s valuable to seek out women to share perspectives on navigating our careers, and I cherish these opportunities. In fact, I go out of my way to meet with my female colleagues to discuss how we can continue to facilitate a more collaborative work environment.
Remember your voice is important
I often find it’s important to remind myself that value comes in the form of a unique perspective—and sometimes that perspective is the most powerful and interesting one in a sea of sameness. Recently, I was at an event for a particularly male-dominated industry. I was challenging where the sector was headed to a small group, and the initial reaction to my point of view was extremely negative. But I stepped back and found a way to re-articulate my perspective. Ultimately, the group became more excited about these new ideas and was willing to explore them—and even challenge the conventional wisdom with me.
Carry the flame
As my career has progressed and I have become more comfortable with making my voice heard, I’ve decided that it’s important to do what I can to help make other workplaces more hospitable for women. That means tactfully—but firmly—speaking out when I encounter instances of bias, invisible or otherwise. If all women leaders take a brave stand, shining a spotlight on inequities in the workplace, then anything is possible.