As a Senior Analyst in law enforcement, Clara van den Bosch know what it's like working in male-dominated environments. Below she shares ten excellent tips regarding what she's learnt over the years, much of it through trial and error.
I had never considered my gender until I started working in law enforcement and realised I had been working for four years in a female-friendly workplace bubble.
I was lucky enough to already know someone who worked in the police force, and better yet, he was a workplace psychologist. I remember calling him after I got the job and his reaction was ‘Get a pen and paper because you need to write down what I tell you’. However, even the nuanced observations of a trained professional did not prepare me for the abrupt cultural shift I was entering into.
Perhaps it is also telling that the only person I knew to get advice from was a male. While helpful, his guidance could only ever paint half the picture of what I would encounter as a female in that environment.
Nearly two years later, I’m still here and continually discovering ways to make my way within the workplace. I’ve learnt by doing, observing, trying, failing, talking to women in senior positions, women who clean the bathrooms, women who’ve left the organisation, managers and men who are making a difference.
I’ve also realised that while law enforcement is at the extreme end of the spectrum, discussions with other women have proven that they face similar difficulties in science, academia and even humanitarian work.
Here is some advice developed through my own trial and error (and sometimes catastrophe) system:
1. Seek first to understand, then be understood. Understand the cultural and historical context of your industry, and how that has shaped the environment you now work in. Talk to people that have been there for a long time, and become inquisitive about why things are the way they are. I can guarantee that understanding will go a long way toward building better connections.
2. Keep firm and professional boundaries, but still be a human. Particularly in less traditional workplace environments, where casualness can cause you to relax and be caught off-guard. If you retain your core boundaries, you will show those around you that they need to respect them, too. That said, you don’t need to be the fun police - it’s still important to have a sense of humour.
3. Get some experience in an opposite work environment, where women rule. This is absolutely key - having the variation of experience will assist you in recognising and understanding the dynamics and complexities of your workplace. It will also provide you with an invaluable second network! Do a secondment, join a women’s committee, do some volunteering with a female-oriented not-for-profit.
4. Get a mentor. Preferably outside the organisation, and better yet, someone who used to work there. That way, when you discuss workplace concerns, they will be an objective but supportive point of reference that will allow you to bounce ideas off. And if they worked there, they will be able to bring insights without the responsibility or politeness they might have to exercise if they were a current employee.
5. Form informal and positive alliances with other women in the organisation. If anything brings women together, it’s being in the minority at work. It is so important to have someone who is only a workspace or floor away that you can meet with for lunch or by the water cooler when you have a workplace conversation that makes you feel like Hilary Clinton in a presidential debate.
6. Break the gender divide by working hard to build one on one relationships, as opposed to trying to tackle them as a group. Thinking all men are the same is a trap and will get you nowhere. Identify people who you want or need to build a relationship with, and simply ask to pick their brain over lunch or after a meeting. Cultivate a curiosity about people and their work, and learn how to develop a genuine connection that you cannot with a large group.
7. Seek out the male champions of change. Better yet, wait until they present themselves, because they absolutely will. Their actions will speak louder than words, and they will be the ones who encourage and support you, irregardless of your gender.
8. Pick your battles. Know what is a losing battle and assess whether it is your or your organisations biggest priority. In my experience, you won’t have to wait long until a bigger issue emerges. You will make yourself tired if you don’t learn to make accurate assessments on this front.
9. But still, fight for progress. Don’t give up because something is hard - that might mean that it is worth it. Make sure your workplace is somewhere you can say you are proud to work. Look at your company’s history of responding to organisational change and don’t be disheartened - you might be closer or further along than you think.
10. Make your voice heard. Be an equal contributor in meetings, the lunchroom and social events. Visibility is your greatest strength.
Clara van den Bosch is a Senior Analyst at Victoria Police, and previously worked as a parole officer for Corrections Victoria. She loves pickles, has two mostly useless undergraduate degrees and can't waive your speeding fine.