2 Questions to Ask When You Feel Intimidated by Male Colleagues

September 10, 2016, 5:30 PM UTC
Architects discussing project in office
Group of architects discussing project at small conference table in office
Photograph by Thomas Barwick — 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 Danielle du Toit, senior vice president of global customer success at Bullhorn.

Looking back, I realize that I’m not a “typical” female. I’ve changed tires, jump-started cars, and studied physics and computer science. I’ve been successful working in the software-as-a-service industry, often called a “man’s world,” completely unperturbed by any dynamics that exist between men and women in the workplace. In fact, it often takes me a while to even notice people’s gender in a business meeting. It’s only every now and then that I’ll think, “Wow, I’m the only female in this large conference room.”

I’ve also applied this mindset in my extracurriculars. For over a decade, I served on a board of directors, and it took me nearly 10 years to even realize that I was the only female on the board. Despite being the youngest and least-experienced board member, I eventually became the board’s vice chair.

No, I am not completely devoid of any observation skills. Rather, I’ve long nurtured the belief that we all have strengths, and they’re often very different. In order to excel at work, we need to set aside our gender differences and combine our collective synergies. That doesn’t mean we need to be either more feminine or more masculine, but we need to truly operate as ourselves.

Here are five strategies that have helped me progress my career in a male-dominated industry:

Have no fear
This is easier said than done, of course. Not fearing working with men nearly 15 to 20 years my senior pushed me to achieve my full potential and bolstered my overall confidence. Truly, if you follow your fears all the way through to their conclusion, you’ll often find that there is little more than fumes at their foundation. Challenge yourself to ask, “What’s the worst that can happen?” and, “What’s the best that can happen?” Even out of situations that may go really “wrong,” you’re likely to emerge stronger, better educated, and ready for the next level.

See also: Why Women Should Stop Trying to Dress Like Everyone Else at Work

Know your strengths and weaknesses
By some odd process, it seems that we’ve trained ourselves to value the elements in the workplace that are normally identified as “masculine,” such as conveying more confidence. Some of those are cliché, and some of them are real. You’re likely to have both masculine and feminine qualities, even if one of those sides dominates. But to grow your career, you need to rely on your strengths and learn how to work around your weaknesses by stepping out of your comfort zone and tackling complex challenges head-on. In the end, you’ll not only learn more about yourself, but you’ll add new skills to your repertoire and continue to deepen your strengths.

Work with companies that value their employees
Pick companies that appreciate people’s strengths. Look for businesses that believe their people are their most important assets. That sets the culture and reminds you every day to focus on your strengths (and other people’s strengths) over anything else.


Be human
The person sitting across the table from you is a human. They have a background. They have a context. They have a family. They have fears. They have dreams. Everyone is interesting. And you can create personal connections to break down the imaginary walls of intimidation that we, as humans, have created. In this age of radical transparency, openness in communication is critical in removing these barriers to better understand your colleagues. And it’s when you truly understand your colleagues that you develop authentic relationships with them.

Have a sense of humor
There’s nothing that unifies humans more than laughter. Show your male colleagues that you can create powerful relationships through your sense of humor and not taking yourself too seriously. By doing so, your colleagues will enjoy working more with you. Not to mention, humor is a great way to de-stress during and after difficult tasks.

If you allow yourself to look at everyone around you, not defined by their gender, but rather by the very unique value that they bring to the table, you will not only forge incredible relationships with your colleagues, but will also be the seed of a new way of interacting in any male-dominated industry.

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