When You Are the Only Woman: New Research

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.
The situation is worse for Onlys who are women of color, half of whom report that they are often the only person of their race in work settings and are subject to more scrutiny and exclusion than white women. The LeanIn-McKinsey survey results also disproved a myth often offered to explain why there are so few women in senior-level positions in organizations: women do not want to be senior leaders. The LeanIn-McKinsey survey found:
  • Almost half of the Onlys say they want the top job in their organizations.
  • Of the Onlys surveyed, 80 percent say they want promotions.
While ambition is not lacking for Onlys, the article also states that “being an Only ‘takes a physical and emotional toll.’” Like Isabelle, Onlys are less likely to stay in their organizations. Greenfield explains that the benefits of diversity for organizations do not kick in with tokenism, which is diluted diversity. Other studies have shown that the barriers and double binds that women face in organizations do not change unless women constitute a majority of leadership. Some research on barriers and double binds include the following:
  • 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.
It is important that we understand the stress and distress for women who are Onlys in organizations. Onlys can easily become exhausted both physically and emotionally and begin to doubt themselves—and they often leave organizations. Even when there are some supportive male colleagues and mentors in their lives, women who are Onlys seldom have the support of other women who are also Onlys—because they are isolated from other women by definition. It is critical that women become aware of the Only phenomenon and join together with other women who share their experience by seeking out professional networking groups or forming their own. A support group of women can become a place for grounding and strategizing—and staying focused on your goals. If you are an Only, what has worked for you?   Photo courtesy of U.S. Embassy Kyiv Ukraine (CC BY-ND 2.0)  ]]>

2 thoughts on “When You Are the Only Woman: New Research”

  1. I learned the importance of not being labelled the ‘one note singer’, e.g. the one expected to advocate for certain issues. Two of my strategies:
    1. Propose an idea – see how it flies. If it falls like a lead balloon, regroup, and present in a different way. If it falls like a lead balloon a second time, do not push further at that time. Accept that the time is probably not right, and work behind the scenes for support later.
    2. Work with men (or other women) to present the idea, so that it is not seen as coming from me.

  2. This really hits home. It’s unfortunate that in today’s world this is the case. I have been an “Only” my whole career.
    Thank you for writing this great article.

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