Being the only woman in the room can have lasting effects in the workplace

If you work in a corporate environment, you may have gotten used to the feeling of being an “Only.” You’re often the only woman at a meeting, the only woman presenting at a conference, the only woman reporting to your manager. You may be so used to being an Only, in fact, that you don’t even recognize it as a thing anymore.

Whether you’re actively aware of being an Only or not, you’re most certainly not alone in the experience. According to the results of McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org‘s annual Women in the Workplace report, nearly 20 percent of women across the board identify as an Only on the job. This number increases to 45 percent for women of color. Women in technical roles and at senior levels of management are also more likely to report always or often being an Only. In comparison, just seven percent of men would say the same.

“What is unfortunate and concerning about the only experience is that it’s associated with a worse experience in the workplace,” McKinsey & Company partner Marie-Claure Nadeau — who works closely with the Women in the Workplace study — notes.

According to data from the study, women who report being an Only are more likely to experience microaggressions in their professional setting. A microaggression can be anything from needing to provide additional evidence of competence to being addressed to in a less-than-professional way. Women who are Onlys in the office also tend to feel worse than men who are Onlys — they are more likely to feel on guard at the office and to feel the pressure to represent their entire gender any time they say or do something. These issues can have a real snowball effect, causing women to feel uncomfortable, unsafe, and unsatisfied.

“We see these small experiences piling up and leading to a worse experience and a lesser desire to advance and to stick where they work,” Nadeau says of the data. As more women are pushed out of their workplaces by microaggressions and the pressures of seemingly representing all of womankind, there are fewer boss ladies ready to rise in the ranks, which means that the only experience will continue — and even worsen — in the future. It’s a vicious cycle.

In order to help break that vicious cycle, Nadeau and the team at McKinsey & Company are big advocates for forming affinity groups at the office. You may feel like you’re constantly the only woman among your own team, but the odds are good that there are other women within the larger organization who feel the same way. Identifying those colleagues and getting into a regular habit of lunches or after-work happy hours may be a good place to start.

Tackling microaggressions directly is another great strategy, Nadeau tells us. “They can be addressed in the moment so that over time, you create a culture that’s less biased and less open to microaggression,” she says. Speaking out when you hear a coworker say something offensive or ensuring that women and people of color get credit for the ideas they bring to the table can help chip away at the larger issues.

“We want to make the only experience more rare,” Nadeau says.


This article first appeared on Brit + Co.