In the early 20th century, “gainful worker” was the term the Census Bureau assigned to those who held jobs outside of the home, 20 percent of whom were unmarried women; married women accounted for only 5 percent. “Gainful” is technically a marker of pulling in a profit, but also indirectly nods to purpose and capability. What, then, were women who raised their children, managed a household, or worked for a family business without pay considered? Unsurprisingly, the very institution to create this label also prevented women from being financially gainful in the first place: women lacked proper education as they were pigeonholed into coursework that championed domesticity over the skills needed to hold stable work at a livable wage, meaning they were often left to work unsafe factory jobs. Eventually, as time went on and educational opportunities leveled and jobs became more widespread, women climbed the ranks in the workforce.
Cut to present day, and women make up 56 percent of college campuses, but because they’re paid 74 percent of what their male counterparts make, their debt accruals far surpass men. This past year, women filed 59% of unemployment claims despite being half of the workforce. And so the disparity continues.
We’ve come such a long way, and yet we haven’t. Women are shattering glass ceilings, but at the same time, are barricaded by cement walls. Of the top 3000 companies in the United States, women only lead 8 percent of them; 1 percent of those companies are led by women of color. And to borrow yet another statistic, 26 out of the 30 highest-paying jobs in the US are male-dominated, whereas 23 out of the 30 lowest-paying jobs in the US are female-dominated. Equality is simply a pipe dream rather than a foreseeable goal—we’ve been trying at this for centuries. But enough statistics—what is it actually like directly standing up to the patriarchy in the workplace on a daily basis? We asked seven women who work in male-dominated fields how it feels to be the minority (in more ways than one) and how they fight for their voices to be heard, even if it means having to borrow a megaphone.
"I'm a producer for film and television. I work mainly as a line producer which means I run production from prep through shooting through post-production and completion. The film industry is unique in many ways, so a lot of the issues that come up in other fields, like benefits and such, don’t come up the same way. (At least not as a freelancer as I am.)
"There are not many women who do what I do, but I think the production/producing side is growing faster than, say, directors/writers/cinematographers etc. The main challenge is that I’m often not believed or trusted the same way a man might be. In pre-production meetings, I’ve expressed a concern or opinion and had it dismissed only to have a male counterpart (sometimes even a man beneath my job status) say the same thing and have them be acknowledged for the idea.
"If I’m doing my job well, then most of the crew will not know what I’m doing. When everything is going smoothly, no one asks how it happened. But when one thing goes wrong, it can bring the production to a halt, in which case everyone will know how I screwed up. I’ve noticed that when there is a man in my position, the error is not attributed to him in the same way it is when something like that happens to me.
"The more time and experience I have in the industry, the more confident I become in my skills and more aware I am when others (men) are speaking from a place of knowledge or insecurity. Every situation needs to be handled differently. Sometimes, I am bold and loud and authoritative. Sometimes, I have to get my point across without damaging the ego of the man I'm talking to. There is a lot of dancing around men’s egos. There can sometimes be backlash from other men in the room if I speak too strongly to the man in charge. Some men don’t like to see other men being challenged by a woman.
"When my voice isn’t being heard, I speak louder—I bring out more facts and data to show my point. I work on being confident without being arrogant; argumentative without being demeaning. It either leads to a deep respect or a deep resentment from male counterparts." — Maddie S., film and television producer
I’ve expressed a concern or opinion and had it dismissed only to have a male counterpart say the same thing and have them be acknowledged for the idea.
"I’ve worked as an architect in Goa, Mumbai and in New York. Unsurprisingly, the challenges have been largely the same. In most large firms, especially in New York, it’s common to see a healthy gender ratio below senior management. The number of women dwindles the higher up you go, sometimes making it difficult to find the kind of mentorship young women in the industry often need. That's why I joined the AIA New York Women in Architecture Committee, which then led to a voluntary role of managing media communications for them. I have been able to collaborate with incredible women in the industry through intersectional advocacy. I think making sure your voice is heard is more about strategically aligning yourself with people in your organization whose work you support and encourage, and vice-versa. In any workplace, it's less about you than it is about the team you're a part of, to ensure an inclusive, diverse culture. Despite being in an industry with construction sites [in an office that is] still predominantly male, I feel my organization does a good job of supporting women by having an in-house group which acts as a safe space. It’s an interesting time in the industry with flexible hours, mental health, and ways men can serve as allies for women coming into conversation.” — Kavyashri C., architect
"I previously worked in four different architecture firms prior to starting my own company. The first three firms were run by men where I was the only female designer, albeit a high-level female architect in training. In one firm, I worked my way up to being the boss's right hand woman, designing and running many of my own large residential projects, working closely with clients and contractors. When I accompanied my boss to events, job sites, or meetings, I was often referred to or assumed to be his 'secretary' or 'assistant' by others, even after working there for almost five years. I also experienced an unfortunate situation with a different employer telling me he was going to pay a much less experienced, unreliable co-worker more money because he was married with children, and I didn't have children. Since starting my own company, as a licensed female architect, I enjoy working very closely with all of my clients. Some potential clients assume men can do a better job because it is a man's profession, but others assume I can design their home with a 'woman's touch.' I'd like to offer the suggestion that homeowners should interview an architect because they want someone who loves their career and will do a great job on the project regardless of whether they are male or female.
"I feel that I've overcome these challenges by being a more assertive woman and building up confidence over time. It's a daily practice. I am well-educated, regularly keep up with my continuing education credits, and am constantly reading up on new trends, materials, and architecture styles. By being educated in my field, I feel it allows me to be confident in meetings and make sure my voice is heard, especially with contractors or in building departments which are often also predominately male.
I was often referred to or assumed to be my boss's 'secretary' or 'assistant' by others, even after working there for almost five years.
"Sometimes I feel my voice is not being heard in meetings whether it's with a client, inspector, contractor, or even personally. I make it a point to not overreact, raise my voice, or get heated. I often take a deep breath, wait my turn to speak, and make sure I speak up when I need to address something important. Most of the time, once the client or contractor realizes that I am indeed an expert in my field and 'know what I'm talking about,' they listen. If there is a situation where I don't agree with what is being said, I'll often reiterate my concerns in an email with justification as to why I feel a certain way or want a certain detail or design followed and proceed accordingly. I am very grateful for how far I've come in such a short time and I'm so proud to be a female architect. I try to inspire other young women in the field, who may not have had a female architect mentor, as well. — Courtney L., architect
"One of the biggest challenges I have faced and continue to face is equal pay. Some clients are willing to pay male chefs two to three times more than the female chef, for whatever reason, without questioning their skillset or their abilities or what they could even provide. With male chefs, people are willing to just sign on the dotted line and pay; with me and other female chefs, there’s one million and one questions that come with it because they feel as though we’re not as capable of producing and providing the same or even better services as a male chef.
"Learning the art of 'NO' has been a big game-changer for me. I no longer explain my worth to anyone. I submit contracts and make sure that everything is submitted back to clients in a timely fashion. I'm super thorough and I do not debate on my invoices. I had to literally put my foot down and say, 'Enough is enough.' If you’re not going to pay me what I'm worth, then I'm not the chef for you. I move on and make the space for bigger and better opportunities. The funny thing is, people want what they can't have. Once I say 'no,' most times, they are now all of sudden willing to pay.
"I currently work for myself, however, as my business grows, I do believe certain health benefits should be in favor of women's issues and understanding that time off is necessary to be with your children. Also, maternity leave is important; the fact that you’re going through your menstrual cycle is important and you may need a day off, so that should be understandable. In a male-dominated company, they don’t understand that nor do they provide those resources, and that's something that definitely should change globally." —Danie A., celebrity chef
"Honestly speaking, I have not been treated that differently and have had very good assistance from the men I am working with in the wine industry. I have, however, faced challenges with the development of my own property for planting purposes where some businesses would not take me seriously or underestimated my intelligence when acquiring equipment or drilling boreholes for water, etc.
"As a single mother of two sons, time is always a challenge, but in my 20 years in the wine industry, I have not experienced hindrances and always had a good understanding with my managers.
"I think I have a relatively thick skin; I always put in extra effort and time, and just get the job done." — Berene S., winemaker at Tesselaarsdal Wines
"Before being given the opportunity to work at Lievland Vineyard, I was previously denied a job opportunity because of my gender. I had come to learn that people tend to assume that a woman's interests are temporary, and this is was not true for me and winemaking.
"I continue to be self-resilient and believe that there’s nothing wrong with me. People have their own preferences, but I believe the industry would benefit from the inclusion of more women.
"There’s an attitude that women belong in the kitchen and shouldn’t deal with complex issues. I feel my achievements speak for themselves, and hopefully inspire other young women who may be interested in a similar path.
Not speaking up and sharing my point of view further perpetuates the idea that I don’t deserve to be there.
"When I was expecting my twins, I took a step back from work to concentrate on the needs of my family—but that was my personal choice. My husband is extremely supportive of my career and is always there for me and the kids. I am definitely grateful for my support network. Being a winemaker requires organizational skills and time management, and I think the same goes for motherhood. A workplace must feel safe for women with such responsibilities at all times." — Mahalia K., winemaker for Lievland Vineyard
"Earlier in my career, I had read about challenges for women in male-dominated industries, but had never noticed any difference between my male colleagues and myself because we all had representation at the next level up. I explicitly remember having conversations about how strange those articles were because we were all analysts and all viewed the same and could notice no difference between how we were treated compared to our male colleagues. However, I'm now ten years into my career, and what I’ve noticed is a complete change. The challenge is a lack of mentorship and lack of community to rely on. With every promotion, the solitude of needing to be perfect to compete with male colleagues has crept in. There is a scarcity of mentors and fellow women to lean on for advice and coach the uniqueness of being a woman and how to use that to succeed rather than coach us to do as the men do. It’s challenging when my male colleagues seem to band together and talk about topics I can’t relate to (enter: sports talk). More and more, the challenge is staying true to yourself and spending time trying to fit into a male community which doesn’t align with my personality and hobbies.
"One thing that’s helped is just building the muscle to speak. The more I’ve spoken up consistently, the more natural it has become to continue speaking up and make my voice heard in meetings. What we have to say is important, and I’ve had to coach myself to believe that I am as deserving to be in that room, and not speaking up and sharing my point of view further perpetuates the idea that I don’t deserve to be there, whereas taking up space reinforces in me that I do deserve to be there. But it’s definitely a challenge and something I need to be consistently conscious of. I’ve also been intentional with my network, and while it’s taken more time, I’ve gone outside my normal circles and workplace to find mentors and build a community of females. I’ve also leaned on male mentors to help me grow. My male mentors have been some of the most influential in my career and I encourage women to find not only female mentors but also male mentors.
"Another thing I’ve definitely noticed is how different my husband and I view our career decisions. He dives into a new workplace without thinking about benefits or whether he’ll be able to have kids and still be an additive employee. I, on the other hand, am consistently considering what impact my work decisions will have on my future family. I’ve made deliberate choices to work on teams that have other parents and therefore understand the unique needs of a working mother. I’ve quit or joined companies because of their maternity leave policies and support system for working moms. I’ve also thought through how becoming a parent will impact how I am viewed by my male colleagues and how I’ll be able to continue to prove that I’m a valuable employee when I have to dedicate more of my time to my family rather than being consistently available at work. — Emily T., investor