You don’t have to ‘man up’ to be a successful leader in a male dominated industry

It’s been 10 years since I purchased Climate. At the time it was a small heating business with a team of seven which has now grown to a team of 26. We have extended our services to include various aspects of plumbing, gasfitting and drainlaying, and have become the most prominent heating and plumbing business in Taranaki.

Because the plumbing industry is especially male dominated, I was told by several of my friends and family, both men and women, that I would need to ‘grow some balls’, ‘man up’ and otherwise ‘act like a man’, if I was to succeed. At first, I bought into this acting how I thought a man would act as a boss and the head of a business. But it wasn’t working for me. I found myself swearing more, being reactive, raising my voice and trying to shock. I felt false, uncomfortable, and did not believe in this ‘macho’ way I was acting. At times I felt like a gender traitor.

One of the biggest things I think women bring into business as a leader is empathy. Empathy is typically typecast as a ‘soft skill’, implying that it’s a warm fuzzy, weak and ineffective. Yet empathy makes others feel seen and creates a trust that provides a basis for a strong culture in a workplace.

Love her or not, Jacinda Ardern showed the world the true power of empathy when 50 people were killed at two Christchurch mosques in March last year. Her demonstration of empathy gained the attention of the world, rousing the Australians to vote her as the most preferred minister.

One of the ways I encourage empathy in our workplace is to start our Monday toolbox meetings by going around each team member publicly asking them what’s one thing they got up to on the weekend. This helps us all to get to know that person more, gain a better understanding of what’s important to them, and walk in their shoes for a bit.

When Jacinda won the election becoming New Zealand’s 40th Prime Minister in October 2017, with 37 of her predecessor’s men, not only was she the world’s youngest female leader, she was also pregnant. Practically giving birth on the steps of Parliament, she proved it was okay to be a woman in a traditionally male role and do what women do.

It has taken a long time for me to be accepted as a female leader in the plumbing industry. The guys that work for me have had feedback such as, “Who does she think she is to be on the board, she’s not even a plumber”. Attending Master Plumber conferences, it was assumed I was a ‘partner’ at networking events – when I told them I was the boss, people didn’t know what to say next. If my husband, Lee was with me, any business questions or comments where only directed to him. While he certainly plays a role, he became very good at turning the questions over to me and making it obvious that I was the person to be talking to when it came to our business.

It is becoming easier for females to enter into traditionally male dominated roles and the more who do and become role models, the easier it will be to pave the way for other women to step in. However, I believe the trick is not to think of yourself as a particular gender, but to think of yourself first and foremost as a leader and be true to yourself.

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