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5 Tips for Women Entrepreneurs to Smash the 'Concrete Ceiling'

Three owners share their secrets of success in traditionally male-dominated industries like foundation repair and house painting.

The tech industry catches a lot of flak for being less than incredibly friendly to women, but it's hardly the only sector where a heavily male workforce means women sometimes feel far from at home. Less commented upon are untrendy but essential trades, such as plumbing and painting, where men have long dominated.

But things are starting to change, and the relative lack of female faces among entrepreneurs in these sectors doesn't mean it's impossible for female owners to succeed in even the most stereotypically masculine industries. Inc.com spoke to women entrepreneurs with thriving businesses in traditionally burly niches to find out how they busted through the 'concrete ceiling' and get their advice for other women looking to do the same.

Be Willing to Prove Your Ability

It might be the 21st century, but stereotypes sadly still remain. "I do get some strange looks when I'm driving down the road in a Mr. Handyman van and the driver next to me figures out there is a woman driving," reports Jo McCabe, owner of a (in this case ironically named) Mr. Handyman franchise.

Among some demographics these prejudices are particularly common. "From the second I step out of my car, I have to start overcoming some pre-conceived notions. 'Does she know what she's talking about?'" says Pam Estabrooke, owner of ProTect Painters. "My toughest demographic is older men. Think your dad."

These stereotypes may be annoying, but getting mad usually solves nothing. Instead, help yourself and women coming up after you by being patient enough to break through antiquated ideas. "I have had to provide my credentials to the individual to convince them that I do have experience in this field and I will be able to help them," says McCabe. "Don't be offended if someone doubts your ability. Feel great about yourself that you can prove it."

This process of winning hearts and minds may take time, but it's worth it in the end. "Sometimes you can't change people's perception in just one sales call or one project.  It often takes until the project is complete that you get the affirmation that you always hope for," reflects Estabrooke.

Stand Up for Yourself

That being said, if you encounter downright rudeness or unbending (and unwarranted) skepticism, there's no need to take it quietly, insists Tina Gregory, owner of Ram Jack Foundation Repair.

"Throw elbows and don't take any flak--it's the 21st century. If they don't want to work with you take the opportunities you provide somewhere else. Stand strong and firm on your beliefs and do not waffle when challenged by a man. Have confidence in yourself and your business," she says.

Appearances Matter

If you're in plumbing or foundation repair, you're unlikely to show up at work dressed in heels and pearls, but that doesn't mean that presentation doesn't counts. Battling misconceptions is often easier when you're armed with a professional appearance.

"First impressions are everything.  Arrive early for the appointment dressed as professionally as you can. I spend a lot of time in peoples yards and shrubbery. I don't dress for a business meeting, but I do try to have on appropriate, logo'd clothing. You'll be leaps and bounds above the typical contractor," says Estabrooke.

Listen and Question

The phenomenon of mansplaining is often infuriating (if you need a definition, you can find one here), but women in male-dominated professions can actually use men's tendency to feel the need to explain things to their advantage. "I have never been shy to ask a question, and I have found men are usually willing to help," says McCabe diplomatically.

Estabrooke is slightly more to point about the genders' sometimes differing communication styles: "Avoid the male tendency to jump in and try to solve every problem instantly. I won't always have all the answers on my first visit.  I've found homeowners respect the time and research I need to get back to them with more information."

She also notes that employing her empathy as a woman, particularly with female customers, can pay off. "Take the extra few minutes to engage in relationship building talk," she suggests. "Is there a baby in the house? Do we need to worry about nap schedules? Let them know you understand what her day is like and you'll do your best to work with those needs."

Surround Yourself With Support

If you're one of the few women in a heavily male industry, things can get lonely. Make sure you find yourself plenty of support both on the emotional and the technical side of things, as well as offering it to others.

"Mentorship can have a very big impact on people whether it be as small as being a friend to walk down a crooked path with or as big as a major business, personal or financial decision," says Gregory. "Sometimes hearing confirmation from a close friend is all the medicine you need to be healthy, happy and confident," she adds.

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Last updated: Jul 14, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in Cyprus with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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