How To Shatter The Glass Ceiling As A Woman Selling In A Highly Male-Dominated Industry


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For the past 20 years, I have been working in sales in Canada for one of North America’s largest Building Materials Manufacturers. This industry is predominantly male-dominated as the Construction Industry still is. It never bothered me, but underneath it all, I have always had this quiet feeling that I didn’t quite fit in. This is probably largely since I was a Canadian Metis Woman working for a Construction Company based in the Southern USA. It never really bothered me; it’s just something that I felt when I was attending large business meetings. I was one of 33 sales reps of which 2 of us were women. In 2017 us two women tied for the top sales position and won the prestigious award of being named as the number one sales rep’s in North America.

 So how did this happen and what I have learned over the past 20 years working in Construction? I am going to share my top three tips and lessons I have learned along the way. 

Tip # 1 Don’t try and rock the boat

I am all for advocating for women and helping women work in highly male-dominated industries but one thing I have learned along the way is that you don’t need to be outspoken and loud to be seen and heard. I have seen many women enter the construction industry on a mission to make sure that women are acknowledged. They pick a “cause” and launch a war. Are they seen and heard? Yes, absolutely but at what cost? I am not talking about standing up for injustice; rather, what I am referring to is “picking a fight” in the name of equality and fairness. Some women believe to be successful in Construction, they need to be loud, they are fighting for women’s rights. 

What I learned is that to be powerful, you don’t need to be loud. The position I took was working with integrity, which meant I would always work to do the right thing in any given situation. 

With my customers, this included sitting down with them, learning about their business, their passion for it and what their strengths were and what challenges they were facing. If there was something I could help out with I would, if I could not, I was very upfront. This attitude and mindset always worked for me as eventually, the word got around that I was a great advocate for their business. 

When some of my customers, who happened to be very large, were attending company conferences word got out that I was very much liked and respected by them. This helped build my reputation internally within my company and with my peers. You see, I didn’t have to try and push my weight around to be heard. My customers became my best advocates and it happened over quiet conversations.

Tip # 2 Don’t try to fit in

 When I say don’t try and fit in, what I am referring to is don’t try to be one of the guys. The truth is I am not a guy, these men are my co-workers and to be respected, I don’t need to be one of them.  

I always learned to draw a hard line between my work and personal life. I always enjoyed occasional dinners out in a group atmosphere but I never tried to be one of the guys by drinking too much, making crude jokes or being obnoxious. I rested in the fact that outside of work I had amazing girlfriends who were my biggest supporters. 

Is that to say co-workers can’t be friends? No, I am not saying that at all, but I didn’t socialize outside of work unless my husband was invited. My boundaries between work and home were very clear. 

 I did not feel the need to try and fit in. I remember when we would have meet and greet dinners at a sports bar before a big conference, I was happy to attend and hang out with the team. However, when the Corporate leadership team made their exit, that was my sign to leave gracefully.  The truth was, I was quite happy to leave because generally after that the heavy drinking began. 

By leaving early I always felt like I gained an edge, by heading back to my room and winding down and getting a good night’s rest instead of being hungover the next day. When our corporate sales meetings were in session I was on my game because I was fully rested and prepared. When I spoke, it was thoughtful and my suggestions were readily received.

Tip # 3 Always take the high road

When presented with what road to choose, always pick the high road. I have always stayed focused on my core values, the values that guide my everyday life whether at the workplace or in my personal life. Having my core values as the center of my life has made decision making easier. 

I remember having a very intentional conversation with a large customer, and he shared with me some of his company’s challenges and how it had affected his business. One of the challenges he pointed out to me was when manufacturers had internal quality or production issues; they were quick to try and cover them up and work to find internal fixes quickly so that sales were not impacted. This usually ended up backfiring and causing him financially as his end customers ended up being upset. I listened intently to what he had to say and, for a moment, I put myself in his shoes as a business owner. 

My core values told me that being honest, no matter what, was key in sales and that my reputation within the industry was worth more to me than the company I worked for. I would choose to always take the high road.

That day I committed to my customer to be upfront and honest with him no matter what because I truly cared about his business.

 One day the time came that I learned about an internal quality defect that potentially could affect his business. I immediately pulled my car over to the side of the road and made a very tough phone call. I reminded him of the conversation we had a few years earlier, I was upfront and honest even though I knew that could mean the loss of sales. He was very appreciative of my honesty and that day he  knew he could trust me.

 My sales for that company did not decrease, in fact they grew. This taught me a powerful lesson that no matter who I worked for, no matter their reputation within the industry or how large they were, I could only fully be responsible for my reputation because at the end of the day that was all I would truly ever have. 

In conclusion, it was never my goal to “shatter the glass ceiling” . My goals were personal about creating wealth for my children and grandchildren, being able to give back, to travel and build memories. By not making it my goal to try to be seen and heard I ended up shattering the glass ceiling. I think the lessons I learned were about being strong in who I was, letting my core values guide me and when given the choice of which road to take, the choice was simple.

 Always take the high road.

Sharon Rose-McNeil

Sharon Rose-McNeil

One Response

  1. Great article! What pops for me that’s similar is : understanding others’ needs liberates me from having to try too hard and then eventually let them down. And when I know myself, I can easily see what others want or need.

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