The higher women rise in their careers, the more likely they are to experience being the "only" in a room — the only woman, woman of color, queer woman, immigrant or religious minority.
These moments of standing out can leave us wondering if we should try to blend in, lean in, or step up. They can happen at any point in a woman's career and in any field. McKinsey's 2020 Women in the Workplace survey found that 20% of women reported being the "only" in a room or on a team, with women in tech and engineering experiencing this in higher numbers. For women of color, the figure rose to 45%. By contrast, only 7% of men reported being in meetings or on teams where they were the only male.
When we're an "only" in a professional setting, we're more likely to have our judgment questioned, to be mistaken for someone more junior, or to be subject to unprofessional, belittling remarks. In addition, "onlies" are more likely to leave a workplace quickly. To remedy this, management experts advise employers to cluster women into teams rather than spreading them thinly throughout the organization and implement opportunities for mentoring.
But what can women do when they find themselves in this situation? Being the "only" in the room, on a team, or even in the C-suite can affect your career trajectory. The following tips can help you navigate this potential pitfall or even leverage it to your advantage:
1. Play to your strengths
"The power industry is still mostly men, so I'm the only woman in the room very frequently in my work," says Teri Medd, senior asset information analyst at New York Power Authority. With expertise in communications and program management, she says that she is often the only non-engineer or person without a technical degree in meetings. To maintain the respect of her peers, she leans on her interpersonal relationship and listening skills.
"I'm very good at tuning into individuals' nuances and how they like to be treated," she says. She knows who on a team likes to be contacted first on new developments and who is OK with less frequent updates, who wants to work independently, and needs more check-in. "It's all about stakeholder management. I spend a lot of time listening. You have to be willing to be the quiet person in the room."
2. Develop a strategy for dealing with toxic co-workers
During your professional life, you are likely to have to deal with at least one toxic co-worker. Rather than confront someone whose behavior is not likely to change, Medd says the best course of action is to end the conversation: Turn your head away from them and toward your work, shut down the conversation, or walk away.
"I try to align myself with people who are supportive. I make sure that I have mentors and allies," Medd says. "But trying to change somebody? I don't think that's useful."
Marsha Haygood, a former HR executive who now works as a career coach, said she was often the only woman and the only minority in the room when she worked in the entertainment industry.
"I have lived it," she says. "I'm a Black woman who was the senior-most Black person in my company. You have to get comfortable with you first. Don't assume that other people are going to assume the worst."
She refers to assumptions made about women of color as "the myth," and she urges her clients to understand what the assumptions are and then, "Don't live the myth."
"As a Black woman, the assumption is to think I'm angry," she says, so she urges her Black women clients to calmly ask co-workers who accuse them of this, "Can you give me an example?" This approach does two things: It shows vulnerability while at the same time making your co-worker accountable for the accusation.
Medd began her professional life as a young woman at IBM, where she transitioned from a department with few women — accounting — to manufacturing, which had even fewer female employees. Medd, who grew up in Portugal, often was called upon to serve as the U.S. liaison with Portuguese-speaking men in technical roles in Brazil and Portugal.
Her foreign counterparts often had very traditional attitudes toward gender roles. It was trial by fire, and Medd admits that she probably shrugged off many things she would not tolerate now.
"These days, engineers who are successful are very good with relationships," she says. "Bullying is unacceptable."
3. Seek out companies that value diversity
Another strategy is to look for a workplace that broadcasts its commitment to diversity and views it as a strength. Tatiana Shams is a senior specialist, CEO communications for T-Mobile with a multidimensional identity — Spanish-speaking Latina, immigrant, and a woman of Middle Eastern descent. At previous tech firms, she encountered negative projections about nearly every aspect of her identity.
"There are a lot of assumptions made about multi-language ability," she says, but at T-Mobile, her experience has been different. "T-Mobile fosters a culture of diversity. Here, my language skills are considered a value add."
4. Nurture relationships with allies, mentors and sponsors
Marcy DeMassa, an Agile coach at FactSet, who works in software development, has been in many situations where she felt she needed to speak up as the "only in the room."
"I have been in literally countless meetings and on many teams as the only woman, and although I think about it less, as the only Jew, as well," DeMassa says, noting that this has sometimes meant feeling the need to address gender or religious-based assumptions.
"Earlier in my career, I navigated this by speaking to one or two people on a team that I trusted and getting them to back me. My hope would be that they would bring up [the need for diversity] rather than me," DeMassa says. "Now, I would not hesitate to point out the need for representation in front of all present."
Medd says younger women — and men, too — need to nurture relationships with mentors, but also with sponsors, top-level managers who are in the room when promotion decisions are made. If you foster relationships with sponsors and make sure they know your career goals and skills, they are more likely to speak up on your behalf when personnel decisions are being made.
5. Develop expert status
Medd advises younger women to make sure they learn the specifics of their field, including professional jargon and acronyms and how to employ them. "Then get hands-on," she says. "I don't respect people who talk the talk. Put yourself through the pain of learning."
Medd also advises women to know what skills they have and what they bring to the table that no one else in their workplace has. "You have to have a good briefcase — a set of skills and knowledge," Medd says. "Know yourself, know what your strengths are, and lead with that."
As a woman in data analytics and technology, DeMassa has developed strategies to bolster her confidence. "There are two things I do. First, I study and work hard. I do my best to show up prepared, even over-prepared," she says. "And, two, if I don't know something, I never pretend that I do. I find that men like to test women's knowledge in technology, and it is far better to be honest."
6. Permit yourself to be silent
For women of color especially, there is often an expectation that those few women who rise to the top or who forge their way into sectors like tech or finance have a responsibility to speak on behalf of their entire community or educate their co-workers on issues of bias.
Before working for T-Mobile, Shams worked at tech firms where, in the absence of much-needed diversity training, her co-workers would frequently ask her to educate them on issues of inclusion, which "can take a lot of emotional and intellectual energy."
"It's not my job to educate you about diversity," Shams says. Instead, she often deflects, keeping the focus on the work.
"One thing I say is 'I speak with an accent, but I don't think with one,' " Shams continued. "If I'm speaking from my own personal experience, then I will offer input. Even then, there are people who will try to invalidate your experience."
7. Know your rights
Being a woman in tech who is also often the only person of color in meetings can be very alienating, Shams notes. "The constant microaggressions chip away at you," Shams says. "Intersectionality takes a lot of mental energy. You have to prove yourself on so many fronts at once."
For example, as a woman of color with accented English, Shams has often been asked "where are you from" in interviews, a question that she notes could violate Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.
"I have been asked every illegal question," she says. Educating yourself about what is and is not OK for an employer or prospective employer to ask you makes it more apparent when your rights have been violated.
8. Know when and how to speak up and make it count
Haygood says that there are times when being the "only" in the room is an advantage. The life experiences and perspective that women and people of color, immigrants, and religious minorities bring into a room where decisions are being made often allow them to pick up on something that has been obscured by the unconscious assumptions held by everyone else in the room.
"You can turn your point of view into an asset," she says. "But it's the way that you say it that is going to sway people. You can't blame people for not knowing if you don't help them know it."
DeMassa notes, "The first time you speak up that way is the hardest because it is shining a light on the situation, whereas normally I would try to not emphasize that kind of difference. After the first time it really depends on the team or group of people. If they are willing to recognize that you represent 'the only' and respect that, it is much easier."
For DeMassa, the most important aspect of advocacy is supporting other women, especially in fields like hers where they are still too scarce.
"Women have to look out for each other. We are used to a male-dominated workplace, even a male-dominated world," she says. "We have to notice when women's voices aren't being heard or represented and work to correct that."