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0609 PD: Women are making it in a predominantly male workforce

Aadron Rausch Published on 09 April 2009

You only have to look back in history at the role of women at work to understand the strength and value women bring to the workforce. Think back to 1940, when World War II drove women out of their homes or traditional female work to enter occupations generally filled by men. Jobs once closed to women were suddenly available, and the “gender” roadblock appeared to be lifted.

The surge of women into the workforce in the early 1940s was driven by public need, monetary necessity and patriotism. But, when the war ended in 1945, officers returned and pressure was placed on women to give up their jobs to these valiant servicemen. Many women fought to keep their positions and the higher wage that came along with it, but what many found was their role and value in the workplace changed as they quickly became a gender minority.

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Today, women still face gender stereotypes when they work in traditionally male occupations. Part of the challenge is that women are less likely than men to hold upper management positions and the low proportion of women to men in the workplace limits women’s voices. In dairying, we have seen an increase in female employees. According to the agricultural census performed in 2007, the number of women involved in farm operations has increased 30 percent in the last five years. So how do women in dairying find their place in a majority male workplace, and how do they overcome challenges they face?

I always say that we can never underestimate the power of quiet observation. Often, we get caught up in our day-to-day experience at work and fail to step back and observe the culture and our place in that culture. Who are the shakers and movers in your workplace, and how do they interact with employees? Observe the way that decisions are made at work. In some organizations, there is a top-down approach to problem solving and decision making – managers and supervisors make decisions and push down their directives to others in the workplace.

In other organizations, there are work groups and teams that jointly problem-solve and set up strategies for effective operations. Understanding how decisions are made and who is involved is critical if you want to have a voice in your organization. You need to know who to talk to and the processes involved so that you are working within, rather than against, the culture. One sure way to upset the applecart is to disregard processes and chain of command or complain informally to others rather than approaching the situation straight-on.

This brings us to organizational communication. Within every organization there are also norms related to communication, and most research will tell you that communication style is something that is influenced by gender. Men and women do communicate differently. They interact differently, and their goals may be different when dealing with difficult situations or challenges. In part, these differences are a product of our natural tendencies and our nature as females or males; the other driver is our socialization and how we have been raised to communicate.

Experts suggest that men by nature are more aggressive and dominant in their communication; they also tend to be more task-oriented and action-driven. Women on the other hand tend to be more passive; they use psychological aggression rather than physical aggression. They have often been socialized to be collaborative in nature and peacekeepers in conflict.

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Think about a situation in which a problem needs to be addressed to improve productivity or organizational operations. Women may meet with individual employees, discuss challenges and look for others who think or feel the same way to help them make a case for change. Men may be direct in their response; they may identify the problem, determine a solution, detail their expectation and enforce. This action-oriented approach may seem cold and impersonal to women, but in fact it is just a different way to reach a solution.

Now, when we try to mix these two styles of communication, we may find that frustrations (and emotions) run high. Unfortunately, we also find some gender differences in handling conflict, and these differences can at times add fuel to the fire. A little hint to the wise: If an issue arises, go right to the source, state the facts, be open to ideas and share your own. Do not take direct, to-the-point communication personally, and focus on the outcome and the goals you are trying to achieve rather than the way the message is delivered.

Being a minority in the workplace is never easy; it means that you have to go the extra mile to find your place in the broader culture. This is not to say that we don’t all have to pay attention to the culture and find our place in it, but that it may come more naturally to those who are members of the broader culture. Ask any male nurse working in a predominantly female health care system and he will tell you that he has learned to work within the dominant culture. He takes a little more time to explain himself, listens more carefully than he might at other times and realizes that emotion is more a part of his life at work than it is in other areas of his life.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule and people who quickly adapt to whatever environment they are in. These are the people who seem to float through most days with relative ease and minimal stress. They pick up on cultural cues quickly and adapt their behaviors to match those of others they are interacting with each day. What this means is that they are flexible and adaptable. They are also slow to react and fairly deliberate in their actions. These are your friends; get to know them and learn!

Here’s three tips that may help.

1. Always take a look within before you start to look out. Discover your own patterns and ways of interacting and responding to situations. Ask yourself if there are personal changes you can make to help you adapt and integrate into the work culture. If you find that values or differences are just too great and you cannot adjust your beliefs and behaviors to “fit in” to the culture, you always have the option to look elsewhere.

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2. Women have a great deal to offer the dairy industry. Women can add a different perspective that may not be considered by the majority. With the right experience and expertise, women (like men) make excellent leaders. In fact, it is their strong communication skills that often make them very open and approachable managers and supervisors.

3. So, step back, take a look at yourself and your own style – what is working and what is getting in your way? Take another step back and look at the culture in quiet observation. What do you see and how do things come about in the workplace? Ask yourself: Do the values and actions of this organization match with my own? Do I see a role for myself, and can I work within the system to get there?

Finally, admit that there are some differences that exist because you are a minority within your workplace but that they are not differences that you cannot overcome.

Remember, being flexible enough to adapt or recognizing when you cannot adapt enough are strengths that you as an individual have to offer. There is no greater strength than the strength of knowing oneself and your place in the world. PD

Aadron Rausch
Director of Strategic Engagement
Clarian Arnett Health

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