Thriving as a Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry: Beth Fisher-Yoshida of Columbia University On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry
Use your voice. Speak up when you have a question. If you do, troubleshooting can happen in advance of a disaster. Your male co-workers will appreciate you for it in the long run, even if their initial reaction isn’t welcoming. Chances are if you have questions, others do as well. When you ask questions to make something explicit, you ensure everyone in the room is on the same page.
In the United States in 2022, fields such as Aircraft piloting, Agriculture, Architecture, Construction, Finance, and Information technology, are still male-dominated industries. For a woman who is working in a male-dominated environment, what exactly does it take to thrive and succeed? In this interview series, we are talking to successful women who work in a Male-Dominated Industry who can share their stories and experiences about navigating work and life as strong women in a male-dominated industry. As a part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Beth Fisher-Yoshida.
Beth Fisher-Yoshida is a professor of practice and the program director of Columbia University’s Master of Science in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. She has educated and coached hundreds of people on improving their negotiation skills and is the author of New Story, New Power: A Woman’s Guide to Negotiation. Her research focuses on strategies and tactics women use to be effective negotiators. Learn more at bethfisheryoshida.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in the Bronx, New York. I remember when I was 11 years old, looking out the window and telling myself that I was going to leave the Bronx one day. It seemed that many well-known actors, actresses, and comedians came from the Bronx and then went on to build their careers and become famous. I wasn’t looking for fame, but I was looking for adventure. I went to the High School of Music & Art, and through my study of art, I ended up traveling to many places in the world, including Japan, where I lived for about 13 years. My studies took me on many adventures far and wide, which would make my younger self proud.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
When I went to live in Japan at 23, I experienced culture shock. I was an independent, outspoken woman from the Bronx who had traveled solo throughout Europe, and I found myself living in a culture with very different norms. It took me a while to understand what was expected of me and even more time to adapt to living there.
This experience sparked my interest in intercultural communication and conflict caused by cultural differences. I studied the subject while living in Japan and then continued this pursuit when I returned to the U.S. through my doctoral studies, my work as a professor of practice, and as a consultant to organizations.
My work on gender in negotiation treats gender as a cultural orientation. There are values, beliefs, and social norms expected of all genders that differ from place to place and from generation to generation. I owe the seeds of this learning to my early years in Japan.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
It’s hard for me to choose the best, most interesting, or most definitive story about anything — because it depends on the context! However, one type of story that continues to reward me is when women let me know that something I said or did has impacted their life in a positive way.
It doesn’t matter if I know the woman or not. Maybe they’ve taken a class or workshop with me, read something I’ve written, or heard something I’ve said, and there’s a takeaway that helps them get the results they’ve been looking for and boosts their self-esteem and confidence.
These are the stories that make my day and keep me engaged.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Relationship-building, networking, and a sense of humor have all contributed to my success.
Relationship-Building and Collaboration
It’s really important to develop relationships that are genuine. Attached to this is being collaborative and having the mindset of wanting others to succeed with you. I frame this as “making the other person a hero.” I ask myself, “What can I do to help this person achieve what she wants?” I believe there is enough of everything in the world, so I don’t need to be stingy or self-serving. By working collaboratively with others, we all benefit.
An example of this is that I often take on more of the workload at the start of a project, especially if I’m in a leadership role. I believe I need to model this behavior if I want others to follow suit and be collaborative as well.
This strategy pays off because the project has a better chance of succeeding if people are generous with one another and they remember, later on, when you need a favor in return.
Networking and Connectivity
When I network, I apply the concept of “paying it forward.” Over the years, I’ve benefited from other people going out of their way to make my path a little easier by introducing me to others or giving me an opportunity.
Case in point: I once was having lunch with a colleague, purely as a social event. She asked me what I was up to, so I described some of the work I was doing. At the end of the lunch, she asked me to send her a proposal for some workshops. I hadn’t intended for her to offer me anything. In my mind, we were just having lunch — literally.
I now purposely help others in the same way.
I like to connect people with one another, and I rely on trusting my gut when I do. My name is my reputation; for my name to be viewed positively — and for my introductions to be taken seriously — I need to do my due diligence before connecting people. When I ask for a favor on behalf of someone else, I make sure they benefit from the connection as well.
I like to have a good time; fun is an essential part of work and friendships. I try to see the humor in situations, and I laugh at myself when I do or say something that could otherwise be embarrassing.
When there’s pressure at work, people can be intense and burdened. I take my work seriously, but the way in which we go about achieving our goals can still be lighthearted and fun. When we’re stressed, we often default to being short with others, but that isn’t fair or collegial. Seeing the lighter side helps. So, I might say something like, “One down, 6,489 more to go” — even when there isn’t much more to do! It lightens the mood and makes work more enjoyable.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Can you help articulate a few of the biggest obstacles or challenges you’ve had to overcome while working in a male-dominated industry?
Academia may not be perceived as a male-dominated industry. But if you look at those in senior positions over the years — both faculty and administrators — more men than women hold these roles. As we’re now seeing in many industries, more attention is finally being given to adequately representing women and other under-served groups.
It’s important to point out that being female isn’t the only thing that leads to more challenges; those in junior roles and women of color face hurdles that are much harder to overcome.
I remember once there were two men, both senior to me, who were making a decision about me without involving me in the process. I was taken aback and annoyed that this would happen. I told one of the men that I’d like to be included in discussions involving my future. He listened but didn’t respond. It was a message I needed to repeat a few more times.
Another challenge I faced was being excluded from informal boys’ club meetings — the very meetings where relationships were built, information was shared, and decisions were all but made. By the time official meetings were held on a topic or issue, they were only a formality; the outcomes had been determined long before behind closed doors.
These male cliques still thrive today, and they heavily influence who gets to speak and whose voice is valued around the table.
Can you share a few of the things you have done to gain acceptance among your male peers and the general work community? What did your female co-workers do? Can you share some stories or examples?
I speak my mind. From years of conflict resolution and negotiation training, I’ve learned how to voice my opinions and concerns in ways that are palatable for others to hear. My colleagues know that I’m honest, hard-working, and quick to jump in and support them. If there’s something I don’t understand, don’t agree with, or want explained for those who don’t speak up, I ask questions for everyone’s benefit. This behavior leads to acceptance because people know who they’re dealing with and don’t have to guess how I’ll react. I try to be no-nonsense in a fun way!
Some other tips from my research are from women with 25-plus years of experience in STEM. These include:
- Be factual. When you’re troubleshooting, address one variable at a time and stick to data, not feelings. Look for evidence to support your points so you’re more scientific in your approach. Men like to solve problems, and this aligns with that orientation.
- Be prepared and stay rational. Some women I interviewed said they had to learn to suppress their emotions. Their male co-workers were uncomfortable talking about feelings and reactions, so they shut down, stopped listening, and dismissed the women as ineffective. Staying calm, rational, and evidence-based gave these women a male audience.
What do you think male-oriented organizations can do to enhance their recruiting efforts to attract more women?
Success for women in male-oriented organizations involves more than recruiting. Women need mentoring and support to advance their careers in ways that are comparable to the men around them. If organizations can do this well, they can use these stories as examples of what they’re willing to do to support women. Women will hear that these organizations are fair and good places to work, and women will apply for open positions as a result.
Ok thank you for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman In a Male-Dominated Industry?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Exude confidence. Your colleagues want to know you won’t wilt under pressure. They want to know that you’ll hold your own and be a good team member. They want to trust you, and being self-assured is part of what will earn that trust. In my research, some of my interviewees said they felt they were being tested to see if they were “one of the guys.” It was a rite of passage, so to speak.
- Use your voice. Speak up when you have a question. If you do, troubleshooting can happen in advance of a disaster. Your male co-workers will appreciate you for it in the long run, even if their initial reaction isn’t welcoming. Chances are if you have questions, others do as well. When you ask questions to make something explicit, you ensure everyone in the room is on the same page.
- Be prepared. You’ll be scrutinized more than your male colleagues, so do your homework and come prepared. Have the materials you need, look over plans in advance, and seek guidance from colleagues, managers, and mentors when needed.
- Show support. Praise those around you when they’ve done an excellent job. This may not be part of your organization’s culture, but showing appreciation can shift your team’s dynamics. You may need to show your support one-on-one to avoid embarrassing anyone. Read the room to know if this is the case. I’ve found that showing appreciation and acknowledging that I see a person’s contribution puts a smile on almost everyone’s face.
- Be reliable. Your colleagues want to know they can depend on you. One woman I interviewed talked about going on maternity leave earlier than she planned. She made sure her work was up to date and checked in to see if her co-workers had any questions. They appreciated her “being available” for them, and she returned to her maternity leave worry-free.
If you had a close woman friend who came to you with a choice of entering a field that is male-dominated or female-dominated, what would you advise her? Would you advise a woman friend to start a career in a field or industry that’s traditionally been mostly men? Can you explain what you mean?
I’d advise my friend to follow her passion. If she asked me to help her prepare or what to consider, I’d explore the pros and cons of each option.
In a male-dominated field, it might be lonelier, but she’d stand out and garner attention that could be useful. If we think of gender as a cultural orientation, then there are attributes a woman can offer that differ from what men offer. With the recent focus on supporting women in male-dominated fields, she might benefit from some of these initiatives.
In a female-dominated field, my friend would need to identify what distinguishes her from other women. She’d have more colleagues like her, so it will be less lonely. However, there might also be competition from other women if they feel threatened by her presence.
Both situations can work out well as long as she is prepared.
Have you seen things change for women working in male-dominated industries, over the past 10 years? How do you anticipate that it might improve in the future? Can you please explain what you mean?
In the STEM professions, for example, there’s been a conscious effort to encourage girls to enter these fields. There are now more opportunities for girls to learn to code, study mathematics, or work in artificial intelligence. But it will take time for these girls to grow into women and enter the workforce.
In the interim, some companies are offering incentives to hire more women.
There’s a long way to go, and mindsets still need to change. The good news is there’s been more attention on the need to stop telling young girls they aren’t good in math and science (they are good!) and, instead, to support young girls and women on this path.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
There are so many incredible women out there in the world. Two names pop up in my mind: I’d love to chat with Serena Williams and Reese Witherspoon. That would make more than just my day!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.