A Career in Male-Dominated Industries: What One Woman Has Learned

Don Tennant
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Dana W. White is one of those people you imagine being able to sit down and have lunch with, just so you can pick her brain and gain insight from her perspectives. While that opportunity hasn’t arisen, an opportunity did recently arise that was, perhaps, the next best thing: I was able to engage her in an enlightening interview.

White, a leadership consultant and author of the newly released book, “Leader Designed: Become the Leader You Were Made to Be,” is a black woman who has spent her career working in male-dominated industries, from the automotive industry to the Pentagon to politics. Her experiences include serving as a foreign policy advisor to Sen. John McCain, and managing U.S.-Taiwan defense relations for the Department of Defense.

Given that background, I could have focused on any number of topics, but I chose to focus on her experiences as a woman working in male-dominated industries. I opened the conversation by asking what working in those industries has taught her. She said it’s taught her “how to move on,” and she explained what she meant:

When I was at the Pentagon, I was quite young — men would joke about having shoes and shirts older than me. It taught me how to get tougher skin. And it’s very important to understand how men think, if you want to be a successful woman in any workplace.

Don’t get me wrong — there were many days when I was upset, and I went out to the parking lot and cried, because I would make mistakes, and I got yelled at. But what I learned about working for men in these industries, which is different from working for women, is they would get mad at me, and then it was completely over and forgotten. Whereas I’ve worked with women, and I make a mistake, and she’s very nice about it, saying, ‘Hey, it happens,’ but it can be very passive-aggressive. And then she never trusts you again. As a woman, you also sort of know how another woman thinks. Women forget nothing, and you’re always now a little hesitant.

So what I enjoyed about working around men is that it’s all about the mission, and you can learn a lot. You can make mistakes, but then it’s over — they just moved on very quickly. Literally five minutes later, it’s like it just vanished from their head. I think that’s a great lesson to learn, just in your own life. Women do have a tendency to marinate over problems, which can be an advantage, but it can also be a disadvantage. It can create unnecessary anxiety.

So it’s not an issue of never making a mistake. It’s an issue of never making the same mistake twice. That is something I think men understand really well, and it helped me not only in my career, but in my life. Move on. There’s nothing you can do about it. Just do better next time.

White has spoken about how true leadership is all about putting the needs of others ahead of yourself, and it struck me that one could argue that the very fact that women by nature tend to put the needs of others ahead of themselves is what has led to women lagging behind men in leadership opportunities. So I asked White if there’s a solution to that paradox. She said there is:

It’s a corporate culture thing, that has been dominated by men. We have corporate cultures that promote leaders based on how well they personally perform. That is very advantageous, and lends itself to men, because men, in general, tend to be competitive — they’re judged on how they perform. So if you are the guy who can laugh it up with the biggest client, and bring in the most money, it’s all about you. They give you the big office, they make you the vice president of sales. It’s about you, because you provided for the company. But somebody who is capable of doing that isn’t necessarily the best leader — he isn’t necessarily the best person to be managing the team, and amplifying its performance.

So what’s required is a shift in the corporate culture. Someone who is a high performer might not be your best leader, because a leader has to be able to see in other people what they’re capable of. They have to encourage other people, and not worry that they’re not getting face time with the biggest client. They have to look around them and ask, ‘What makes the most sense in order to accomplish our goal?’ And then they have to enable the people around them to do it.

That, White said, is precisely where women excel:

I think women are absolutely predisposed to being great leaders, because they can look at other people and nurture them, and they are very good at putting other people and the mission ahead of themselves. But in a culture that is very dominated by men, and the mode of ‘kill the woolly mammoth,’ it makes it harder for women to negotiate. And being the kind of woman who can kill a woolly mammoth often turns off both men and women in the workplace. So I think that’s why women lag. And that becomes the struggle.

I asked White in what ways being female had been an asset in her career. She responded by pointing out that it’s important to be unusual, no matter who you are:

Particularly among women and minorities, there’s this tendency to think, ‘I want to have what everyone has,’ which really means, ‘I want to have what white men have.’ That’s the underlying message. But No. 1, that’s not your playing field. We as people in general, and especially minorities and women, get very wrapped up in being the same: ‘It isn’t fair — I want to have what you have.’ But the thing is, you and I are different people. My perspective is the fact that I’m a different person doesn’t have to be a deficit just because I’m not a white male. I bring something completely different to a situation.

I don’t think there’s ever been a time in history when different perspectives have been valued more than now. People want to know, what are the millennials thinking? Never has there been a time when the establishment, the power structure, has been more interested in inclusiveness of perspectives. So being wrapped around this idea of, ‘I don’t have what he has,’ you’re not who he is. That’s OK, and there’s actually value in that.

For me, not only being a woman, but also being black, I’ve always enjoyed different perspectives. I’ve never walked into a situation thinking, ‘It’s not going to be fair for me.’ I always knew that there are certain limitations in life — someone else is always going to be smarter than me, or taller than me. But I think we buy into this false narrative that in order to be happy, or in order for things to be just, I have to have what you have. It’s up to me to make my perspective valuable. It’s up to me to bring my special value to the discussion.

All of that said, White is hardly fooling herself about the reality of the situations she walks into:

Certainly, I’ll walk into situations where people will have seen my resume, they will have talked to me on the phone, and then a black woman walks in. Have I ever considered that in my psyche? Of course I have. I recognize that people might be a little biased, or a little surprised, because I’m not what they expected. I need to work around that. I need to work around what people may feel about me. People want to find value in sameness, but there’s never value in sameness. There’s value in being unique.

We wrapped up the interview on a thought-provoking note. Interestingly, White was working on Capitol Hill when the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, and she doesn’t shy away from talking about the damage that episode caused:

You’re very impressionable when you come into your first job, and [the scandal] sort of exposed a world that, as a young woman, you, perhaps naively, thought was a bygone era — that sex was a way to get ahead. That seemed so archaic — no modern woman thinks that, or does that anymore.

Then the Monica Lewinsky scandal hit, and this wasn’t just any man — it was the President of the United States. Clearly, it showed that this was very much a part of a woman’s repertoire. In a weird way, I think it taught a generation of women that it’s OK to bring sex to the workplace — like it’s part of your arsenal. Not necessarily sex itself, but sexuality, and letting men think about you sexually.

I think frankly, it’s something that we as a generation haven’t recovered from — I think it’s only gotten worse with young women. I think young women are far less aware of just how disadvantageous, or inappropriate, how they carry themselves and how they dress can be. So I think the Monica Lewinsky scandal was very damaging in terms of setting the stage for young women to lower the bar on how we regard ourselves.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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