It’s not just lonely at the top — it can be lonely at all levels of a company when you’re the sole member of a group.
One in five women report they are often the only woman, or one of the only women, in the room at work, according to the “Women in the Workplace” report from McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org.
The research also shows “onlies” — the only woman, the only LGBTQ person, the only woman of color — are likelier to experience subtle forms of bias. About 64% percent of all women reported they experienced microaggressions at work. That number jumped to nearly 90% when women frequently found themselves in “only” situations.
Navigating life as the only one in an office can mean women feel frequently torn between disappearing into the majority or standing out as the lone voice of their group.
Mary Casady, a financial planning analyst in Boston, once worked in a sales role as the only woman on a team of men. When her group exceeded its goal for the year, the head honcho at the firm rewarded everyone with an expensive gift: cuff links.
“The worst part is my boss’ boss comes over and we had those low cubicles, so my whole team sees this go down,” she remembers. “He says, ‘I’m sorry. Maybe you can just give them to your boyfriend?’ I was in shock. Later on, I thought, ‘Did my boyfriend come in and call the clients and do all this?’”
On guard and under pressure
Women who are onlies also report feeling “on guard,” “under pressure” and “‘closely watched,” according to the report.
“It’s embarrassment, but also exhaustion,” Casady says of being the only one in the room. “When you can’t be your authentic self at work, you’re exhausted and taking that energy away from doing your work.”
When a woman is the only person of her group in the room, people are more likely to question her competence, doubt her authority or even mistake her for a lower-level employee, according to McKinsey and LeanIn.org.
This is especially common for women of color, who reported feeling scrutinized or under pressure in only situations.
“We recently were doing an interview with a banking executive who’s a woman of color, and she phrased it as, ‘You’re walking on a double-edged sword,’” says Marie-Claude Nadeau, partner at McKinsey. “You have to consider the biases that go both ways in a lot of cases. The line is very thin. You walk one way and you’re too aggressive, you walk the other way and you’re too quiet.”
Onliness also means women are one and a half times more likely to consider leaving their jobs altogether, according to the report.
Working as an ‘only’
Women of color are even more likely to be the only — either the only woman, or the only person of color. Because of that, Nadeau says, they’re even more likely to experience microaggressions in the workplace, and also more likely to encounter all the emotions that come along with that: the feelings of being on guard or left out.
Wandy Felicita Ortiz, a digital strategist in New York City, says one of her “only” experiences actually occurred in a roomful of women, where she was the only woman of color.
“I ended up being the token POC expert, which made me uncomfortable,” she says. “I had to be the person who kept the moral gate closed, in terms of what was appropriate to do or say. I was also the youngest person in the office, so it felt odd to have people defer to me on those types of topics, which for me sometimes felt uncomfortable to discuss or say.”
Though she liked the work she was doing and got along with her coworkers, she says she felt constantly frustrated, as well as emotionally drained by the isolation.
“I think when you don’t feel alone, you have the ability to focus on other things that don’t have to do with your ability to navigate these situations you find yourself in at work,” she says.
Still, many women view such situations as inevitable. Research even shows women in technical roles or senior positions are even likelier to be an only.
“You know in some fields, there are not going to be a lot of people of color,” Ortiz says. “So when I’m confronted with that, I’m not necessarily shocked, I’m just disappointed.”
Casady loves her workplace now, but she knows there’s a possibility that further along in her career path, she could again find herself as an only. But because of her past experience, she’s hyper-aware of looking out for others who may be in similar situations.
“This is the world we’re up against,” she says. “I think so much needs to change, for everybody.”