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women at work

In my former life in the corporate world, I would spend the summer months freezing in my office. I would look wistfully out my window at women in summer dresses downing iced beverages while I tried to warm myself with hot coffee and sweaters. I even once contemplated a blanket. Several of my female employees kept heaters under their desks.

Then it dawned on me why I found myself in this predicament each summer – it's to accommodate all those men in suits. While women can wear a variety of light and loose fitting clothing options and still come across as professional, men aren't as lucky. So the environment, literally, adapted to meet their needs.

Although this a relatively minor example, the truth is, in many ways it's still a man's world. A recent study by the University of California's Davis Graduate School of Management came to this conclusion after examining the presence of women at the top of the 400 largest publicly held companies in California, representing nearly $3-trillion (U.S.) in shareholder value. Of these companies, women held fewer than one in 10 of the highest-paid executive roles and board seats and there has been no significant progress in the previous eight years, the study found.

Rather than rail against this, I've decided to approach this from different stance, and seek out the winning advice from women who thrive in male-dominated workplaces.

For Sabrina Geremia, sector lead of integrated solutions at Google in Toronto, that skill came down to really understanding and focusing on what motivates her audience. "Early in my career, when I worked for a major cosmetics brand in Italy, part of my job was to present to the local sales force every year," Ms. Geremia recalled.

"Sounds simple, however the 50-plus person sales force was comprised mostly of middle-aged Italian men and I was a green twentysomething who spoke their language with a Canadian accent – diverse from many angles," she said.

So she went to the meetings armed with interesting consumer insights that could help the men sell their products. Those skills helped her when she moved to the technology field, which struggles to retain top female talent.

Another approach, exercised by Elem Rinomato, one of the few women in a leadership role in the male-dominated drywall trade, was to embrace the issue head on and bring attention to the elephant in the room.

She recalls a pivotal moment in her career came more than 20 years ago when she attended a general meeting of the Interior Systems Contractors Association, and found she was the only woman there.

"I walked in the main door and the smell of smoke and cognac was overwhelming and the meeting hadn't even started yet," said Ms. Rinomato, president of Torino Drywall Inc., one of the largest drywall companies in the Greater Toronto Area.

She remembers the men swearing when they spoke to each other and that they appeared uncomfortable with her presence.

"I stood up and said, 'Gentlemen, please carry on as you always have, please do not change because I am here,'" she said.

She didn't stop there. Rather than hold back because she knew she would be breaking new ground, Ms. Rinomato took the opposite strategy and ran successfully for the board of directors of ISCA, making sure her voice was heard at every meeting.

Years later, the men who were at her first ISCA meeting confessed to her their initial discomfort, which eventually gave way to acceptance.

Like Ms. Rinomato, Sherry Cooper, the former chief economist for the Bank of Montreal, embraced her status as one of the lone women in her field.

To Ms. Cooper, thriving in this environment meant being true to herself. "I never tried to be one of the guys. I didn't know enough about sports, or golf or hockey. I never tried to act like a man or look like a man, which in my early career, women were doing," she recalled.

Her response was to stand out and: "When you are in a sea of grey suits and white men, you at least get attention. It's hard to miss you."

When she joined BMO, Ms. Cooper found most women at the bank to be very conservative. They chose their words carefully, agreed with their bosses and didn't want to stand out.

"I was the first woman to wear a pantsuit on the 68th floor," she boasted.

A common thread for these women is their commitment to supporting the next generation of women in their field, a topic Ms. Cooper speaks about passionately. "I think if women ruled the world, it would be a much kinder, gentler place," she argued. I tend to agree. Another nice, if unexpected, benefit would be to lower the air conditioning.

Leah Eichler is founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women and r/ally, a mobile collaboration app.

E-mail: Twitter: @femmeonomics

Follow Leah Eichler on Twitter: @LeahEichlerOpens in a new window

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