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how to win when you’re the only woman in the room

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Why is it still so hard to succeed in business if you’re a woman? Could it be in part because so many senior executive women are the only woman in the room? We’re talking about board rooms, executive meeting rooms, even break rooms. In such situations, how is the only woman treated? And how can she thrive, succeed, have real impact, and even advance professionally when she’s the only one? Here’s my take on how to win when you’re the only woman in the room. Just a few practical tips on how women can succeed in business. And what men can and should do to drive the success of female executives.

First, some facts 

According to a recently-released joint report from McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org – based on a study of 64,000 employees and 279 companies in North America – 20 percent of women surveyed said they were often the only female in the room or one of very few. The figure is far higher in sectors like technology and engineering, and for women of color.

Based on my personal experience, that sounds about right.

The study notes that women make up just one in five C-suite executives. For women of color, it’s one in twenty-five. Having been in the C-Suite myself for over a decade, and having been in numerous board rooms as a partner at consultancy McKinsey & Company, as a member of senior management teams and as a corporate board member, I estimate I’ve been the only woman in the room at least 70% of the time. As I’m also African-American, I can add that I’ve been the only black person in the room about 90% of the time.

In many cases, I’ve not just been the only woman, and the only black person. I’ve also been the first to ever be in the room. Which means that no one really knows what to expect – not me, and not anyone else in the room.

Is this a recipe for personal and professional disaster? Or for success? Dear reader, it depends.

Results from the study on the treatment of the “only woman”

The McKinsey study found that women in “unbalanced environments” (their phrase, not ours) are more likely to have their judgment questioned than women in environments with more than one female team member (49 percent versus 32 percent). They’re also more likely to be mistaken for someone more junior (35 percent versus 15 percent), and more likely to be subjected to unprofessional and demeaning remarks (24 percent versus 14 percent).

My own anecdotal evidence bears those statistics out.

All of those things have happened to me at one point or another in my professional life. Once when I was a mid-level associate at McKinsey, a client handed me a sheaf of papers and asked me to photocopy them. Even though I was the most senior member of the 3-member team present for that particular interaction.

Even with three Harvard degrees, throughout my career I have frequently been questioned – usually covertly, not directly – about whether or not I really know what I’m doing.

And, yes, once when I was baby consultant at McKinsey, a client actually used the “n-word” in front of me at a meeting. It was a passing mention, off-hand, and clearly part of his everyday vocabulary. Did he forget I was there? Did he think I wouldn’t mind? Was he thinking at all? Hard to say.

So what’s a woman to do?

Should you find yourself in this situation, either temporarily or over the course of several years, here are 5 things I’d suggest you do to not just survive, but thrive and win the day.

1. Believe in yourself.

Without being arrogant, or dismissive, or haughty, you have to demonstrate an unshakable belief that you are competent, trustworthy, and dedicated to the success of the team. Exuding quiet confidence is the goal here. Dress accordingly. Empower yourself to set and defend your personal boundaries without apology. If someone crosses a line, get whatever support you need and then call that person out – firmly, professionally, and with the conviction that your employer wants a workplace where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. If that proves not to be the case, it might be time for you to Get Out.

2. Deliver at the highest possible level on the duties of your role.

I hear some of you saying that it’s not fair that the only woman in the room has to excel when plenty of others on the team are skating by based on other factors. Sorry, but that’s irrelevant. You need to make yourself indispensable. Be careful what you commit to doing. Because once you say yes, you have to deliver on your commitments. Your aim is to exceed expectations, especially in the early period of interactions with your teammates.

3. Show them you’re human.

Once you’ve laid down a base of professional competence and reliability, it’s vital that you also show that you’re a real person – just like everyone else on the team. You have a life, interests, and a sense of humor. Let people see what those things are. That’s how you build trusting relationships. Once I had kids, I found this much easier to do – a fellow parent can always bond over something child-related. If that won’t work, there’s always sports. I’ve learned enough over the years to keep up with conversation, and to occasionally join in, if I have to. You can, too. Just be authentic. And don’t be afraid to occasionally make fun of yourself (it took me a long time to figure that one out).

Winning the day also means that you need to find ways to see the humanity in each of your male peers, as well. One easy way to do this is by thinking about your interactions with your male family members and friends. For my entire life, I’ve been surrounded by a constellation of men: my father, my brother, several uncles and cousins – and later my husband, sons, and nephew. Somewhere inside each of your male peers in the room lies some similarity to some guy you know well. That might be a good starting point for an empathetic and trust-based relationship with that person.

4. Pick your battles.

There are going to be many times when you’ll feel angry. And hurt. Resentful. Sad. Misunderstood. Unfairly treated. Left out. And exhausted. Occasionally, you may even see and hear things that shock and dismay you. I suggest that you resist the urge to fight every single thing that doesn’t sit well with you. Your ability to drive change is directly related to your ability to demonstrate patience and wisdom. When something is really not right, absolutely call it out immediately and be prepared for resistance. Fight the good fight when you’re convinced that it’s worth it. But don’t try to win every point every day – because unfortunately, that will probably result in your not being in the room anymore. Oh, and you get extra points for being able to remain steely and calm in these kinds of confrontations. It’s hard to do – but incredibly effective.

5. Have backup and a recovery plan.

One of the hardest things about the only woman – or the only person of color – in the room is that it’s lonely. There will be times when you feel invisible. Or at least not seen clearly for who you really are. And also times when you feel that you’re constantly under a white-hot spotlight.

In a high-powered senior role, we spend most of our waking hours at work. And if many of those hours are spent with people who are very different from us – and may be either overtly or passively hostile toward us – then when work is done, we have to recharge. That means having a spouse, family, friends, professional associations, and other involvements that nurture your soul. For example, a women’s-only club. However you decide to do it, being the only woman in the room at work means that you have to make self-care a priority. Those moments of connection with and validation from like-minded people are not a luxury – they’re an absolute necessity.

What’s a man to do?

What about everyone else on the team? What is their responsibility for including you, respecting you, and helping you thrive in the team environment?

Happily, there are a lot of good guys out there. Every time I’ve been the only woman or the only person of color, someone in my peer group has reached out a hand.

Once, during my first week on a new job when I was the first and only woman on the senior management team, one of my new teammates gave me a book as a “welcome to the team” gift. Another stopped by and asked me to join his direct report team for lunch.

These small gestures of kindness and inclusion have more power than people can sometimes comprehend. A shared joke, a shared lunch break, a quiet word of wisdom shared – those are absolutely priceless actions that the men on the team can take.

When those moments of shared humanity come, embrace them. Return the favors, and build genuine relationships of trust with as many peers as you can. You won’t get there with 100% of them. But you can thrive if you can get there with even half of them.

How about boss behavior?

If you’re the only woman on the team, two things must also be true: your boss is a man. And he hired you, knowing that you’d be the only woman in the room.

That means he has faith in you, and that he’s invested in your success. Don’t ever lose sight of that. But don’t ever try to take advantage of it, either. It’s your job to earn your way with your peers and others in the organization as well as you possibly can. Meanwhile, you can trust that your boss is doing his best to create the conditions for you to succeed.

What kind of boss and leader are you?

If you’re a C-Suite executive, you’ve undoubtedly got your own team. How many women are on it? How many people of color, or members of the LGBTQ+ community? Or people for whom English isn’t their first language, or for whom your country is not their native land?

Are you mentoring other women, and sharing your advice and ideas on how they can succeed in your workplace? Are you actively working to get more females into your peer group? Or are you behaving like a “queen bee” who actually wants to remain the only woman in the room?

Be the boss you want to see in the world.

Demonstrate the power of a diverse team by building one yourself. Then generously export your talented team members to others in the organization, and hire some more. It takes time. But you can actually drive change with sufficient savvy and patience.

the rule of three

there’s real power in three’s

I’ll end on a note about the Rule of Three. Several academic studies have shown that when there’s only one woman – or person of color, or “Other” – that person faces extreme pressure to speak on behalf of their entire gender, or race, or whatever group they come from that’s different from the norm.

When there are two women, or “others,” you’d think things would be dramatically better, but they’re not. Anytime they pair off or agree with each other, the rest of the group tends to think that they’re colluding in some way.

The magic number is three. Three women, three people of color. Suddenly, everyone can speak for themselves – and not be perceived as the spokesperson for their entire gender. The entire group dynamic shifts in incredibly positive ways.

I know because I’ve seen it in action

I can say this with great conviction because on the board of the Clorox company, where I have served for 13 years now, there have always been at least three women (right now there, are four!) There have always been at least two black people, and at least three people of color (right now, there are four!)

I am now the Lead Independent Director of the Clorox board, and I can honestly say that being on this board has been one of the most satisfying and enjoyable professional experiences of my life.

It has given me the confidence and courage to go into many other rooms where I’m “the only one.” It has proven to me, without any doubt, that the best decisions come from groups like this one. Where a diverse group of people are talented, and respectful, and open to all ideas.

I should also say that the other two public company boards on which I serve also have three women directors. Can you imagine what the world would be like if every corporate board of directors had that composition?

In the UK and the Nordic countries, they’re working hard to make that happen. What role can you play in that effort?

stay strong, “onlies”!

Until every room looks like the world we actually live in, I urge you to keep your chins up, “only women in the room.” And “only ‘others’ in the room.” Try to persevere. You’re the wedge – and the door is going to open wide. Maybe not tomorrow, but someday soon. And it will be in no small part because of you. Stay strong.

But enough about us! How does all of this resonate with you? Have you had the experience of being “the only” as an executive? Or of being on a team with “only one” person who’s different from the rest of you? How did you handle it? We’d love to hear your story.

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