Celebrate Women’s History Month . . .
Overcome the One and “Lonely”

Overcome the One and “Lonely”At some point in their careers, most women experience being an “only” — the only woman on a project team, in a senior leadership role, pitching investors or heading a startup. It can lead to lot of paradoxical feelings; being both ignored and highly scrutinized, or feeling alone in a crowded room of colleagues who all happen to be men. For women of color, the experience can be even more isolating.

While words like “pioneer” and “trailblazer” may fit you to a T, research shows that being the only woman in the room can negatively impact work life satisfaction. Research from McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace Report finds that women who are “onlys” tend to experience greater discrimination and increased likelihood they will have their judgment questioned or be mistaken for someone more junior.

“Onlys” are also 25% more likely to experience microaggressions, more likely to have their abilities challenged and 1.5 times more likely to consider leaving their jobs. Lone women report feeling “on guard,” “closely watched” and “under pressure.”

Women of color often experience the double challenge of being both the only woman and only person of color, creating sometimes exhausting mental and emotional demands to both fit in and still represent their group. They also receive less support from managers and are often left out of informal networks.

Singular strength

All that said, “only” women can and do succeed every day as innovative founders, business owners and corporate leaders. The thing most likely to help is having a supportive community at your back — especially other women who understand the challenges.

McKinsey and others offer several suggestions that can apply in large companies to small startups on how to make the only experience less common. Here are a few to consider:

  • Build critical mass. Rather than spreading individual women out across teams where they are more likely to be alone, try to hire, promote and group women together in cohorts. Ideally, small businesses to large organizations are already striving for greater diversity, including gender diversity, but if there are only a few women on board right now, McKinsey advises assembling teams where several women can work together.
  • Talk openly about the issues. A lot of bias goes undetected by its perpetrators or is built into systems we barely realize are there. As a founder or leader, work to create a culture where microaggressions can be identified and discussed directly and as they happen.
  • Build your support network. While you are always working to protect and build your business, prioritize nurturing yourself too. It’s lonely at the top, but supportive relationships with other women founders and leaders will enable you to compare experiences and share counsel. Women of color especially need to connect in safe spaces where they can candidly discuss unique challenges.

Engage with the MonicaMotivates community to grow the skills, opportunities and connections to make your journey less lonely and far more productive.

  • Connect directly with women consumers and investors. If your product or service is targeted to women, work to get in front of them directly or through female decision makers. Many women entrepreneurs who sell products specifically targeted to women (such as clothing items or personal care products) report that male investors, mentors and purchasing agents could not understand the business or product well enough to back it.
  • Seek out natural alliances. Female founders often find success in cross-promotional activities with other female founders, providing opportunities to highlight multiple brands to a similar target market. The relationships payoff not only in network support and camaraderie, but in strategic connections that can help all the participants grow their businesses.

If you’re an “only” working to make your mark in a world still largely populated by men, you don’t have to walk alone. Leverage the power of sisterhood as a competitive advantage.