Elise Hernandez has spent her entire career in boys clubs. In her first position as a sales administrator for a large printer manufacturer, Hernandez, now 41, worked with one other woman in a company almost entirely made up of men. "She taught me how to be assertive," says Hernandez of her first mentor. Even after being promoted to manager for Mexico sales at a different U.S. technology company, Hernandez was not allowed to travel alone and her management style was often criticized. Her male boss wanted her to use more masculine tactics like banging her fists on the table to get a point across. When Hernandez refused, her job suffered. "I closed one of the largest sales in the company's history, and then was demoted after being told that a woman had no business managing male-dominant countries like Mexico ," says Hernandez. "This was my awakening to the games that are played," she says.
Her Own Way
Hernandez remained a female minority in the tech field, but she didn't let this become an obstacle when she started her own Minnesota-based technology company, Ideal System Solutions , in 1997. "I have always had a strong desire to sell and manage so I had to look past what sex dominated," she says. Ideal has been growing approximately 34% each year for the past three years. In addition to other awards, the company was recognized as one of the top 500 women-owned businesses by DiversityBusiness.com .
How She Did It
Ten years ago, Hernandez saw very few women at technology seminars and training events. "Even today, you find 75% of the room filled with men," she says. Regardless, women like Hernandez use some simple rules to help them thrive: Know Your Product: Hernandez's first mentor taught her how lethal it can be to give misinformation. Know everything about what you're selling, advises Hernandez. "Most importantly, deliver a high-quality product," says Marsha Firestone, founder of Women Presidents' Organization , a nonprofit for female entrepreneurs. Stick To Formalities: Get everything in writing, advises Hernandez, and ask for formal, well-documented reviews. Stand Out: Kay Phillips, president of The Atek Companies , a medical manufacturing company, has always worked in male-dominated industries such as oil and gas. She used her minority gender status to get noticed. "It gave me a chance to stand out," she explains. Despite her success, Phillips has also faced discrimination from male colleagues, mostly in the form of crude jokes. Her advice: "Make it clear you don't want to participate," she says. "Sometimes all it requires is a look and a couple of words."
A New Network
Women working in traditionally male fields can draw support from organizations that seek to create female networks. The Women's Leadership Exchange has awarded many women the Compass Award for shifting the way women are perceived as leaders in male-dominated fields. "Women helping each other -- what we call the new women's network -- will narrow the gender playing field," says Andrea March, founder of Women's Leadership Exchange.