Martin Gee for TIME
Career

How I Succeeded in a Male-Dominated Industry

Aug. 9, 2016

Start by knowing your worth

I grew up in Detroit, so I was always around cars. Yet I wouldn’t consider myself a “car nut.” I would go to car shows with my dad as a kid and get so bored! Which is why my career path as an engineer for a major car manufacturer ended up surprising everyone in my family—including myself.

But as an intern at Ford in 2003, I got put into a group working on the chimes that the car makes—the alerts and car door sounds and such. It had never really occurred to me that there was someone who actually works on that! It helped open my eyes to new things in tech that I could be a part of.

I love what I do, and I want to challenge the preconceived notion that people have about who works in the tech and auto industries. Yes, the auto industry is very male-dominated, to the point that I rarely notice anymore if I’m the only “girl” in the room. I’m lucky enough to work in an environment where I consistently feel respected as a woman and valued member of my team.

That’s not to say that it’s easy being that only woman in the room. Here’s what I have done—and what you can do—to navigate that situation and come out on top.

Cultivate your confidence.
No part of me has ever felt like I don’t belong here. And I approach things with confidence. I think that helps me earn a lot of respect from my coworkers. Even something as simple as sitting at the table in a meeting rather than staying off to the side and speaking up to make your voice get heard can reinforce your place on the team. Take it to heart that you’re a part of the team, you’re there for a reason and you have valuable input to give.

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Make a great first impression.
There’s a part of me that likes surprising people. When people outside the company see me, they don’t expect me to know what I know and to talk about what I’m knowledgeable on. When I’m speaking at an event or an auto show, there’s an assumption that I’m hired as a show girl. But there’s a moment of realization, they suddenly start acting differently, using bigger words, thinking, ‘Oh, you actually work for the company?’ I get a lot of that.

I use those encounters as a teaching moment. I take the opportunity to let that person almost feel silly about their assumptions. I don’t want to rub anyone’s nose in it but I take a pride and joy in seeing them react and feel apologetic. They think that way because they haven’t met a lot of people like me—and hopefully an encounter with me will change they way they view women’s roles in the industry.

Remember that it’s not always personal.
On the rare occasions that I feel slighted because of my gender—say a guy cuts me off in a meeting—I start paying attention to the person who made me feel that way. More often than not I notice they’re doing that to everyone and not just to me. It’s not always personal. That person might just be a jerk!

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Advocate for others and set an example.
Trust me: I understand the feeling of being intimidated when you’re the only woman in a room. That’s why I pay extra attention in meetings to pull that out of people if I see they haven’t spoken or have been cut off. It helps those people develop that confidence in their own abilities and sets an example to others who might have overlooked those teammates.

Find the power in being an outsider.
I am proud of the different perspective I bring to the engineering team as a woman, and I own it. If I wasn’t there talking about the way I do things differently than men in the office, it wouldn’t be considered. I remember a conversation talking about the design of a key fob for a new car that locks and unlocks the vehicle. We were talking about how people use them, and the guys were like, ‘Oh, it’s always in my pocket,” and I said that actually, mine sits in my purse and this design would get buried at the bottom. It’s not the kind of thing someone without a purse would worry about but little changes can make it more accessible to the women who would be driving our cars. It’s moments like that where I feel like I’m empowered to represent women in my work.

Jennifer Brace is the User Interface Supervisor at Ford.