Not long ago a new client, Isabelle, came to me to discuss feeling confused and lost about how to be a woman leader. She had most recently worked for a Global Health NGO as the only woman on the senior management team and had taken a strong stand for promoting a woman in the organization to fill a senior-level vacancy. All her male peers wanted to hire a man from the outside. Isabelle argued that the woman was at least as qualified and that the organization needed more diversity in its leadership ranks. Finding no support among her male colleagues, she went over their heads to her boss’s boss and got his support for promoting the woman. Her own boss, who had disagreed with her, wrote a negative performance review for Isabelle’s permanent HR file, stating that she was biased and discriminated against men. He also wrote that she was too aggressive and not a team player. Isabelle felt that she had won the battle but lost the war. A short time later, she left the organization. When she came to me, she was filled with self-doubt about her leadership abilities and was unsure if she ever wanted to work in a male-dominated organization again. Many women find themselves in Isabelle’s position as the only woman on a team. Rebecca Greenfield of the Boston Globe reports on a new study from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. on a group of women called “Onlys,” defined as those who are often or always the only female in the room at work. In a survey of more than sixty-four thousand employees in 279 US companies, the research found that one in five women put themselves in the Only category. The number rises to 40 percent for women in senior or technical roles. Survey participants reported facing more challenges in organizations as Onlys than other women:
- Half of the Onlys say they need to provide more evidence of their competence than others do.
- Onlys are twice as likely to be mistaken for someone more junior.
- They are almost twice as likely to be subjected to demeaning comments.
- They are twice as likely to report being sexually harassed at some point in their careers.
- Almost half of the Onlys say they want the top job in their organizations.
- Of the Onlys surveyed, 80 percent say they want promotions.
- Women are given more negative performance reviews with more negative personality criticisms.
- Women get interrupted more and then are criticized for not talking enough in meetings.
- Women must walk a tightrope between being effective versus likeable and too feminine versus not feminine enough.