Be assertive! 5 tips from a woman who knows what it’s like to work and succeed in a male dominated industry

I’m an accidental expert at succeeding in male dominated industries. I kind of fell into it, and figured it out as I went along.

I should say upfront that I didn’t seek out these industries, except that growing up in a remote area, like the Kimberley, throws opportunities at hard workers willing to grab them, regardless of gender.

My school holidays were spent working in my grandparents’ hardware and earthmoving business.

After high school, I worked out bush for a week at a time. I learned how to drive a fire truck, got caught up in a Maritime Union dispute working at a Port and took up the job of restoring an old timber pearling lugger (a sailing ship).

It was a challenge to be my home town’s first and youngest female senior manager in the local government, which I followed with a stint driving out to work on some of the most remote Indigenous communities the Kimberley had to offer. I certainly had to know how to change my own tyre!

Even when I moved to Melbourne, I found myself managing a trade’s business dealing daily with tradies and builders.

Following this I was involved in launching what’s become Australia’s largest building inspections franchise, Jim’s Building Inspections. This meant working with about 70 building and construction experts around the country, just one of them a woman.

So I guess I’ve learned a few lessons about how to succeed working in a male dominated environment, and I have learned them the hard way.

Just some of the situations and challenges I have found myself in include:

  • Guys wanting to pick things up and carry them for me, though whether that was out of chivalry or the assumption I couldn’t do it I’m not too sure.
  • The meaningful conversations directed towards my abundant chest.
  • The odd overly flirtatious approach, although I’ve been lucky to avoid anything more sinister.
  • People wanting to deal with ‘the boss’ when they’d definitely get a better, faster and more accurate answer from me.
  • Literally running between meetings with builders to breastfeed and then back again, leaking and crying the whole way.
  • Being quoted absurd amounts for trades jobs by men not knowing I knew better.
  • Being excluded from the informal ‘associative’ networking achieved over beers after work or on a golf course (although I’m quite handy with a club) because I chose to be home with my girls
  • And I was most likely inequitably remunerated at some point, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time.

However, all of these challenges paled in comparison to the one obstacle of my own creation.

I wouldn’t, couldn’t, be assertive.

The need to please others, to not disappoint, avoid letting them down and surely never ever challenge, disagree or argue with them, isn’t restricted to working in a male dominated industry but it’s certainly exacerbated by it.

I’ve avoided men in meetings and phone calls, hiding behind a wall of email in an effort to delay, defer and dodge any situation that required me to be assertive. It wasn’t even that I had a fight on my hands, sometimes I simply had to tell them something they didn’t want to hear.

Looking back across these challenges of working in a male dominated industry, it’s this one asset, assertiveness, which would likely have resolved all other problems.

It’s hard to suggest how to avoid timidity and ensure assertiveness for women entering a primarily male environment. But with two young daughters on my hands, it has become an urgent matter for me.

Looking back, I know maturity and time have helped me become more assertive. But that won’t help my girls. I can’t conjure up maturity or grant them the gift of making their mistakes for them.

In the meantime, here is a short list of things that have helped me succeed in these male dominated work environments.

1. Find the people who will invest in you and lock on like a leech.

Three men made a massive difference in my life, my bosses – Stefan, Jonathan and Richard. They invested their time in me, they gave me advice and they trusted me.

Find these kinds of people, they are out there.

2. Know more than anyone else in the room.

If you are working in a male dominated industry, you need to know your stuff. It’s not fair, but don’t do it for them, do it for the confidence you’ll gain. Knowledge = credibility. Knowledge + Credibility = Confidence. Confidence = Assertiveness.

3. Be better prepared than anyone else in the room.

Get there earlier, know the layout of the room and where everything is, be logged in for the teleconference first, and know how to use the business tools better than anyone else. Again confidence = assertiveness but take it a step further. Control the agenda if you can and take the minutes. It’s not diving back into the world of pencil skirts and secretaries.  Controlling the agenda, chairing or facilitating a meeting means you have a preceding position of authority, you can direct the meeting and control the narrative.

4. Call out gender based assumptions wherever you see them.

You won’t be popular, you’ll be called (shock horror) a ‘feminist’ and not in a positive, happy, rewarding way. Do be constructive when you call it out though. Highlight the assumptions and their effect on you, because most blokes won’t even realise what they’ve said and most often won’t have intended to hurt or hold you back. 

Never ever tolerate a guy making you feel uncomfortable in a workplace. It’s ok to simply say, “Can you stand back? You’re making me feel uncomfortable.” Say it a bit louder than you need, there are enough good guys around these days to drown out the deliberately offensive idiots.

5. Help other women do the same.

At home: It always starts here, and for me this means helping my daughters. In little and big ways, I’m building a bank of assertiveness skills I hope they’ll be able to call upon.

In the workplace: This will differ for everyone, but I am going to have a crack at the gender imbalance found in franchising and see if I can overcome some barriers for women to enter this domain, by launching a new division of the Jim’s Group that I hope will appeal to women specifically.

I am also compiling a trade directory of women owned and operated trade businesses, found at It’s no secret the trade industry is severely dominated by men, so I am trying to support my fellow female tradies by encouraging other women to head to the directory and call a handywoman when they need something done around the home.

Women are on the rise. We have come so far but still have a long way to go before we achieve gender equality. It might be tough to navigate a path through a male dominated industry, but it can be done, and these five strategies may help you leapfrog some of the challenges I have faced. I urge you to have a go.

Suzanne Commerford

Suzanne Commerford is the Director of Jim’s Building Inspections and the creator of SheBuilds, Australia’s home improvement community for women.

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