For too many women at work, they are the only one of their kind at work, a unique species of employee with no others to talk with and learn from.
In the latest Women in the Workplace report by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co., more than 64,000 employees and 279 companies weighed in on their experiences at work, and for too many, their careers were a story of isolation and stalled progress. One in five women said they were the only woman in the room at work. This excluding experience became more pronounced for women of color and lesbian women. Forty-five percent of women of color said they were the only person of their race in work situations, and 76% of lesbian women reported being the only one of their sexual orientation.
It is too common for women to be ‘only’ one
Identifying as an “only” had disastrous consequences for women’s careers. Women who were surrounded by men in the office became 1.5 times more likely to consider quitting their job. They also experienced sexual harassment and microaggressions at a higher rate. When women were “onlies,” they said they needed to provide more evidence of their competence, were more likely to be addressed in a less-than-professional way, and were more likely to have their judgment questioned, compared to women who had other women at work.
When you are the only one of your kind in the corner office or on a project, you lack allies and support that can foster your professional development. Studies have found that women keep women in male-dominated industries. To see what you can become, it helps to have someone else like you live through it first.
When there is only one woman on a team, the report found that the rest of the workplace is more likely to project all their hopes and anxieties about women onto that one woman. “While they are just one person, they often become a stand-in for all women—their individual successes or failures become a litmus test for what all women are capable of doing. With everyone’s eyes on them, women Onlys can be heavily scrutinized and held to higher standards.” When asked about their experience of being an “only,” the top feeling women reported was a pressure to perform. As one black woman who worked as a mid-level administrator put it, the pressure to excel can be heavy. “I have to be ‘on’ all the time,” she wrote. “Because in the back of someone’s mind, they could be judging the entire race based on me. And I don’t want anybody else’s opportunity to be ruined because I messed it up. I know that seems really heavy, but that is often how I feel.”
Men who were surrounded by women had a more welcoming experience. For men who identified as an “only” on their team, their top takeaway about the experience was feeling included and fortunate to be on the team.
The report is an annual snapshot of women’s progress in leadership, and despite the report maintaining urgency for more company investment in women’s careers, progress remains stalled. For Facebook COO and LeanIn.org founder Sheryl Sandberg, this needs to change for any progress to stick: “There is a disconnect in corporate America,” she wrote in a Facebook post about the report. “Year after year, companies report that they are highly committed to gender diversity. But the proportion of women in their organizations barely budges. For this to change, companies need to treat gender diversity like the business imperative it is.”
Marie-Claude Nadeau, a partner at McKinsey San Francisco, told Ladders that facilitating more ways for women to collaborate and grow together can be part of the solution. “Senior women are twice as likely to be Onlys. One possible solution is for companies to think about grouping women at senior levels, promoting more women in cohorts rather than focusing on having the one token woman in every promotion or hiring slate,” she said. “At a minimum, companies need to provide opportunities for women to interact at work. Second, employers can foster a culture where it is acceptable, expected and rewarded to interrupt biases and microaggressions when they happen —because we know those are more common for women Onlys.”