Advice for Women Entrepreneurs in Male Dominated Industries

Hana Mohan

11min read

If you’re a woman who wants to open a business, you’ve got company--more than 11.6 million U.S. firms are women-owned, which is roughly 39% of the country’s private businesses. And even better, as a small business owner you will likely do as well as your entrepreneurial male peers financially.

But for “women in men’s jobs,” there’s admittedly more competition. According to research from nonprofit Catalyst, those industries include construction, transportation, engineering, computer programming, and the energy sector, to name a few. (Alternatively, CNBC reported ten industries that are seeing an uptick in female workers--and SupportBee is happy to report that customer service is one of them!)

While there are female professionals in every industry, we wanted to know: what is it like to establish a woman-owned business in an overwhelmingly male industry, and what advice can female leaders in male dominated industries offer others considering the same move?

The best advice comes from those who’ve lived it, which is why we spoke with four women in mostly male industries to find out.

Women in Construction

Letitia Hanke, Founder & CEO, ARS Roofing, Gutters, and Solar (She/her)
Of the top 100 construction companies in the world, only 3 have female CEOs. Women comprise just over 10% of the world’s construction workforce, and that number isn’t moving upward in tandem with the industry's growth. Women of color see one of the worst pay ratios in the industry, earning only 81 cents for every dollar paid to white men.

Of the top 100 construction companies in the world, only 3 have female CEOs. Women comprise just over 10% of the world’s construction workforce, and that number isn’t moving upward in tandem with the industry's growth. Women of color see one of the worst pay ratios in the industry, earning only 81 cents for every dollar paid to white men.

Those statistics are just a few of the reasons why Letitia Hanke, founder and CEO of ARS Roofing, Gutters, and Solar is so impressive. A California native who originally dreamed of pursuing the performing and recording arts, she went in another direction after getting an opportunity to work with a roofing company. Over eight years, she worked her way from receptionist to management, and realized she had enough experience to start her own construction business--and ARS was born.

She’s been the CEO for 16 years, which means she has operated in a male-dominated business through the (tiny) incremental changes women have seen in the construction workplace.

The road there was not easy, and the hurdles she experienced were blatant.

“There were many times I was discouraged from pursuing [my construction business],” Letitia said

“It first started with the banks. I tried to get bank loans and couldn’t even get to the application phase.”

It was only after North Bay Black Chamber of Commerce helped her get a significant loan that she was able to start operating--which came with different types of discrimination.

“I’ve had quite a few challenges as a female contractor. Many times it was just male clients or contractors calling me ‘baby doll’ or ‘ time I went to a contractor networking meeting, which was [mostly men]. I walked up to say hello to a couple of contractors and one looked down at my polo shirt and saw my logo. He said ‘I see you work for ARS, huh?’ I responded, “Actually, I’m the CEO of the company.” He then said “Ha…from the kitchen to the rooftop!” and then chuckled. I’ll never forget that feeling...but it also helped me become stronger and more determined,” Letitia recalled.

Being a woman in a male-dominated industry is one challenge, but being a woman of color piles on to the biases she has had to overcome. Her tactic? Break barriers by refusing to negotiate on who she was.

“As a woman of color, I’ve had potential clients not shake my hand, or not open their door when I was delivering their proposals to them or doing their estimates. I’ve had a client tell me to my face as I was leaving their house, that they ‘have an alarm system on their house and if anyone tries to break in it would go off really loud,’” She said.

“I made a decision eight years ago that I would not hide anymore. I used to sign my name L.R. Hanke so people would think I was a man; I didn’t have my photo on anything. I rebranded my business and put my face on all of the marketing so people would know in advance that I am a woman of color. That decision changed my business for the better in so many ways,” she said.

Her advice to those considering a career in an industry where they stand out is to do what she did: just keep going.

“Stay strong and true to yourself. Don’t change who you are for anybody. Share your stories and passions with others in hopes that you can inspire other people,” she said.

Women in Aviation

Nicole Vandelaar, CEO & Chief Pilot, Novictor Aviation (She/her)
Nicole learned how to fly at 16. By 21, she had created a new major at her university--Business, Aviation and Communications. By 27, she had founded her own helicopter tour company in Hawaii, where good helicopter pilots were in demand. It’s now a multi-million dollar business.

That’s particularly amazing, given that only 5% of the piloting workforce is female; women holding C-level roles in the commercial aviation industry is even lower, at 3%. And Nicole’s challenges around being a female in aviation didn’t go away as she became more successful--in fact, they were amplified.

“As I gained power in the business world, I found it much more challenging to be a female in a male-dominated space. I find that some men (definitely not all) are intimidated by women in power and try to undercut women as a way to compensate,” Nicole said. “The bigger and more successful my business has become, the more those types of challenges have expanded.”

Nicole believes that because the field is so dominated by men--and that the business world in general still sees more men wielding power than women--that it’s become a natural instinct for them to try to dominate women.

“It really is unconscious, but it’s almost a bias as if the woman is ‘invisible’ when it comes to really powerful topics or decisions,” she said. “As an entrepreneur, I have been in meetings with men that simply cannot believe I have a confident opinion or stance on something, and they don’t even realize that they are not fully crediting or accepting my voice simply because I’m female.”

Her advice for women seeking careers in male-dominated industries is similar to Letitia’s: don’t make yourself smaller to accommodate someone else’s insecurities. And while you’re at it, don’t give bad behavior more of your attention than you need to, and direct your attention to male allies.

“Do not focus on the unhealthy men. There are so many men that are supportive, and those are the ones to build healthy relationships with.” Nicole said. “Also, build healthy relationships with many women. Treat your employees well and all genders fair and equal. Most importantly, be good to yourself, and always, always believe your own truth over any one else’s. Sometimes in male-dominated industries, it’s easy to question yourself, but be bold about your passion and your honor. You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to be true to yourself.”

Women in Cybersecurity

Sharon Goldberg, Founder, Commonwealth Crypto, Inc. (She/her)
Today, women make up just 20% of professionals working in cybersecurity globally--that’s up from 11% seven years ago. (The number of women-owned cybersecurity companies fits on this not-very-long list.)

Among them is Commonwealth Crypto, Inc., founded by Sharon Goldberg, who started out in the computer world when the internet was just coming online for the masses. Her early knowledge of what would become an increasingly in-demand skill gave her a competitive advantage, but she admits that coming from an engineering family, getting her Ph.D. from Princeton, landing a job as a professor, and receiving awards haven’t hurt, either.

“It was actually fun to be a female in engineering in 1999, it felt like a challenge,” Sharon said. “I never felt like I couldn’t do it because I was a girl.”

She started her career at 23, working at a power company--a different environment than academia. While she never experienced sexual harassment, she did feel she was held to a higher bar than her male colleagues.

“I learned to get comfortable with being in a situation where nobody took me seriously, but it was never really bad or mean spirited enough to really deter me. I do know there are women who have had to climb the ranks infosec and have had a more difficult time," she said.

“Every woman my age in my field has had ‘those moments’--but I've always been loud and aggressive in counteracting that. The personality I have now has been shaped by being in a male-dominated environment.”

What was most helpful for her--aside from working extremely hard--was a combination of mentorship, fostering a sense of self-worth, and growing a thick skin.

“I think any woman who is technical will experience unfair things--like the assumption that you are less technical because you’re a woman," she reflected. "The thing that's frustrating is the pleasantness thing…how pleasant you are is sort of relevant to your job. It's a challenge because your personality will offend people, you’ll either be too quiet or too loud. I have many stories. You will offend someone because you are different, no matter where you are on the personality spectrum. But you shouldn’t beat yourself up over it.”

Another piece of advice follows a theme that’s been crucial to her success: mentorship.

“It's important to have female mentors and advisors. I know it sounds cliche, but even today I have female mentors that understand the day to day difficulties that I have more clearly than my male advisors, just due to shared experience. There's a big difference between a woman who just joins a male-dominated environment for the first time vs. one who’s been in it for a long time. You will constantly run into these frustrating things that will happen, and one way to counteract it is to have your strong female network around you," Sharon explained.

It's equally as important to remember your own strength, as well.

“It is difficult to have enough confidence in yourself when you’re sometimes discounted or your abilities are discounted. My advice is to be really good at your job ...and try to ignore [the bad stuff]. It's just a matter of not doubting yourself. Having to prove yourself more than others doesn’t mean you’re worse, it means you’re going to be better than everyone else.”

The good news, she adds, is that things are moving in the right direction.

“When I started my career, the world looked very different. I would never have dreamed of being treated equally in 1999. It’s gotten a lot better than it was. I hope and expect it will continue to get better,” she said.

Women in Sports

Francesca Brown, Managing Director & CEO, Goals4Girls (She/her)
It’s no secret that women have been underrepresented in sports, whether it's the damning pay gap between the WNBA and NBA, or the fact that less than a quarter of NFL clubs are owned by women. Male athletes receive $133 million more athletic scholarship dollars than their female counterparts.

Many women executives have attributed their strengths at work to having participated in sports, and in that same report, hiring managers say sports experience is something they look for in female executive hires for the same reason. Unfortunately, by age 14, double the number of female drop out of sports participation than males. By 17, half of sports-playing girls will have quit entirely.

“The sporting industry is dominated by men, and it goes unnoticed because it is seen as ‘the norm,’” said Francesca Brown, a woman who is trying to fix the attrition rate of female footballers with her UK-based Goals 4 Girls program.

Francesca feels sports have always been in her blood; she played football (U.S. soccer) since she was seven, in addition to running track as a sprinter. In addition to keeping her body in top performance, she credits sports as a helper in maintaining her mental health and wellbeing.

After an injury ended her sporting career at 18, she took her love of the game to London, where she arrived with £10.00 in her pocket. She wanted to bring sports to those who needed it the most--young women from low-income families.

“The lack of opportunity for young women and girls in their communities was profound, an imbalance that I quickly realized needed redressing,” Francesca said.

In 2013 she built a formal program that was co-created by these girls, for girls, with the aim of getting girls out of the street life and into a football development program. The hope was that more females would stay committed to sports engagement.

“It was also [about] building on conversations regarding body image, social media, relationships, confidence and barriers when accessing sports, education and employment pathways,” Nicole said.

Francesca said that despite knowing her journey as a female in the sports industry would be a difficult one, she never felt discouraged in pursuing it--and has actually received encouragement in running her own entity that serves a critical social need. That doesn’t mean it’s been a piece of cake.

Like Letitia, race has posed additional barriers on top of gender. Francesca said that she has been told the organization was “too black” (80% of Goals 4 Girls participants being young women and girls from BAME backgrounds).

“Over the years it has become more evident as a young black female entrepreneur that there are very few of us at the top,” Francesca said. “Walking into boardroom meetings I notice immediately that I’m consistently one of very few black women--and black people--in the room. Navigating through intertwined barriers--the intersection of race and gender--has brought about many challenges which I believe have [my] affected chances of long-term success within the sports industry.”

“I recall walking into a meeting and being interrogated, before I even introduced myself, on how well I know the football industry,” Francesca said. “There have been times my organization has lost out on funding to male middle class counterparts who have less of an impact and expertise within this line of work.”

Constant judgement and exaggerated requirements to prove herself over others has been mentally taxing, and caused Francesca to second-guess herself plenty of times. Her experiences have highlighted just how valuable it is to lift up other black (and female) entrepreneurs. Events like the “Football Black List Awards,” which celebrate the achievements of black people within the sports industry, is one example.

“For Black women it's not just a pipeline issue. Once they are in the door, they need to feel supported in ways that are specific to being a woman of color. Bringing more women into leadership is an important way to advance the cultural change we need,” she said.

Her advice for other women building organizations in mostly-male arenas is to start with understanding the need being addressed. And tap your supporters for help when you need it.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help and guidance from connections you have made, and don’t be afraid to shout about what you have achieved...Know your worth and don’t be afraid to take up space in an industry that was built for and by men,” she said. “The more women we have working in sports, the easier it’ll be for future generations to come in and make further, long-lasting changes.”

Interested in taking a look at SupportBee?

Sign up in seconds—no credit card needed