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How to deal with the boys club at work

Have you landed your dream job only to find that you’re surrounded by men at work? Maybe you’ve had a few promotions and now you’re suddenly the only woman in the room.

Despite progress for working women, some workplaces can be a bit of a boys club. It’s not surprising when you look at the data. Construction and mining sit at 16% women in their workforce, while every single industry still lacks women in the top jobs.

Does it matter if some workplaces remain male-dominated? (Spoiler: of course it does). What can be done about it? And what should you do if you’re working in what feels like a boys club?

Dr Andrea North-Samardzic, lecturer with Deakin’s Faculty of Business and Law, is an expert in gender, business and leadership. She offers some insight based on her research, and firsthand experience working in a male-dominated workplace.

Making the case for gender equality

It’s important to achieve gender equality at work for both social and economic reasons, according to Dr North-Samardzic. ‘From a social justice standpoint, [inequality] means that women are not fully participating in the workforce.’

There’s a business case for getting the gender balance equal. ‘From an economic standpoint, not accessing the entire spectrum of the population means you’re missing out on hiring the best people possible,’ Dr North-Samardzic says.

‘For economic health and productivity of organisations and industries, the more people participating in the workforce the better for the economy.’

Finding male and female champions

It can be confronting for women to enter work in a male-dominated industry, and a daily challenge to work somewhere you feel marginalised.

Dr North-Samardzic has some pragmatic advice for women on how to survive in a male-dominated workplace. She suggests ensuring that your networks aren’t all women. ‘Form support networks and mentoring relationships with both men and women.’

‘Finding male mentors and champions, that’s actually a really important thing that’s overlooked. One of the reasons why women don’t progress is because we aren’t tapped in to the male-dominated social networks.’

‘Attending women-only networking events is good for emotional support but for career progression you need to have both male and female champions.’

Seeking out allies

Dr North-Samardzic says it’s common to seek out support, and network with, others who feel marginalised. ‘Acknowledging diversity as a broader principle means that you have the opportunity to bring other people into the cause.’

‘If you’re in a team as a sole woman with men, that doesn’t mean that all the men are going to be white, it doesn’t mean all the men are going to be heterosexual, for example.’

‘Sometimes we do need to think beyond gender when we’re feeling disadvantaged or discriminated against and look towards more broader diversity principles.’

'One of the reasons why women don’t progress is because we aren’t tapped in to the male-dominated social networks.'

Dr Andrea North-Samardzic,
Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

Avoiding the boys club

With some research, you can make a beeline for diverse workplaces. Dr North-Samardzic says to look beyond the policies of an organisation and examine their practices. ‘Be proactive, do your research about the company.’

Get a reality check on an employer’s policies by talking to current staff. ‘Just because an organisation says they have flexible work doesn’t mean they support you to take it,’ Dr North-Samardzic says.

Be prepared to ask questions on gender equality in interviews. ‘Ask them what percentage of their workforce has taken paternity leave this year. Because if it’s one percent, then you know it’s not really normalised.’

Dr North-Samardzic warns to take the ‘employer of choice for women’ badge with a grain of salt. ‘The problem is that lots of organisations have those badges but don’t actually have a lot of women in senior positions, so it’s window dressing to an extent. Having that badge isn’t enough.’

Making real change

The hard facts say there’s still a fair way to go until the boys club at work is a thing of the past. Australia’s latest scorecard on gender equality at work, by the government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA), isn’t encouraging.

There’s still a huge pay gap (men earn $26k more a year than women on average) and women make up just 29.7% of management roles.

How do we make strides? Dr North-Samardzic says quotas won’t fix the problem, and change will come when employers face facts. ‘Organisations find their way around quotas. We’ve had targets set by the gender equity agency since 1984 and the targets haven’t been met.’

‘Organisations need to be open and transparent about gender representation and gender pay statistics.’

WGEA research backs this up. It found that when employers report on gender equality metrics to board level, they are three times more effective at closing the gender pay gap.

The good news is that WGEA has seen a big jump in the number of employers taking action, and Dr North-Samardzic agrees there’s been improvement. ‘Fortunately, things are changing. Slowly, but they are changing over time.’

Is culture more important than pay at work? Get more tips on how to choose your next employer.

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Dr Andrea North-Samardzic
Dr Andrea North-Samardzic

Lecturer, Faculty of Business and Law, Deakin University

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