Women Empowerment

How Women Can Break Through in Male-Dominated Fields


By Sally Blount

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: “How do you excel in a male-dominated industry?” is written bySally Blount, dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

There have been so many research studies conducted and books written on male vs. female leadership styles. Yet they seldom get at the crux of the issue: What does it take for a woman to excel in male-dominated fields, and what does it take to be one of the few who break through?

In my work, I have the privilege of regularly interacting with many of the world’s leading female CEOs, and as one of the only females leading a top, global business school, I know something about the topic.

In my mind, the essential factor that crosses industries and sectors is an enduring reputation as an outstanding performer. Here’s what goes into building that reputation:

Unwavering work ethic It may not seem fair, but every successful female CEO I know tells the same story: You have to give 110% at every step of your career. There’s no shirking or shortcuts. Year after year, job after job, you have to consistently be seen as one of the hardest-working and most effective performers—and that’s not amongst everyone. That’s within the group of high potentials in your field.

Highest integrity Having high ethical standards is just the starting point. Integrity means being a fully honest broker, doing what you say you will, staying out of questionable politics and liaisons, and meticulously managing expectations. There’s just no room for gray in building a long-term reputation for excellence.

Learning focus You have to be tenacious in seeking feedback and integrating what you hear into improving performance. It isn’t always easy—believe me, it can feel brutal at times. But collecting and listening to all the feedback—both positive and negative, fair and unfair—is key to managing your reputation and growing as a leader. To be among the best, you have to constantly improve, and the only way to do that is with feedback, an open mind, and ongoing focus.

Passion for your work Being a woman who has to give 110%, operate at the highest level of integrity and do so with a truly open mind, and learning focus requires real passion for your work—passion that extends beyond yourself. And sustaining that level of passion requires a mission you believe in. Without focus on the overall mission, you won’t be able to find the energy you need to deliver year-in and year-out.

Dignity and grace As you buffet politics, inappropriate comments, and the impact of your own mistakes and others’ (all of these things will happen), you will need to learn how to walk into work each day with grace and confidence. Humans are pack animals. We instinctively perceive weakness. So even when you hit a rough patch at home or experience a public failure at work, how you carry and conduct yourself—both verbally and non-verbally—matters. This doesn’t mean that you can’t ever convey vulnerability, but it means that you need to be judicious when you do it.

This is how truly outstanding female performers differentiate themselves. They play the deep and the long game: They work with grit, integrity, and adaptability, propelled by purpose and resilience—every day, every week, and every year.