Are you the only woman in the room? Use it to your advantage
Despite increased corporate commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion, sustained social movements, and significant investments in early STEM education, women are still underrepresented in tech. According to a recent study, women hold only 5% of leadership positions in the tech sector, and according to a recent study by Statista, women make up only about 25% of CIOs across all industries.
Women are also underrepresented as entrepreneurs, despite numerous studies showing that startups founded by women perform better than those founded by men. Women-owned businesses make up only about 20% of all employers according to the US Census Bureau. And that number could decline due to rising female unemployment and a higher proportion of women leaving the workforce due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Also read: How the pandemic is affecting women in tech.)
With that as a backdrop, it’s no surprise that although I work alongside more female peers and clients now than before, it’s still not uncommon for me to be the only woman in a room. . Over the years, I’ve found ways to challenge gender stereotypes, stand up for my point of view to thrive in my career, and ultimately appreciate some of the opportunities that come with being the only woman in a work environment.
This perspective helped me become my company’s first female cloud and digital strategy associate, sponsor a number of colleagues and mentees, and lead many women’s initiatives within the company. I would like to share some of the insights and other tips that have helped me. I hope my learnings will help you too.
Here are my takeaways from being the only woman in the room:
Own your individuality and accept to be the only one
At the start of my career, I was not fully aware of the impact my gender could have on me at work – and perhaps I did not fully recognize the biases that were present. Yet, I’ve learned – through personal experiences, reading and listening to industry thought leaders, and more importantly, talking to peers – that sex has an impact on the perception others had of me. However, I saw, and continue to see, my inclusion as a benefit and a differentiator. (Also read: Not a Monolith: 3 Leading Women in Tech Share Their Journeys.)
Companies need a female perspective: 85% of CEOs whose organizations have a diversity and inclusion strategy say it has improved business performance, and 77% say it has improved customer satisfaction.
As the only woman in a room, I can also offer valuable new perspectives due to my unique life experiences and strengths. For example, I’ve embraced my strength as an empathetic leader, which means I can see some of the more subtle impacts of the tough recommendations we make. I’m intuitive and have developed a high degree of emotional intelligence, which translates into a strong ability to understand what’s really on a client’s mind or what’s behind a colleague’s performance .
As the only woman in the room, it’s also harder for someone to forget me. I can use this distinction to more easily organize follow-up conversations, network, and build relationships. I’ve learned to use some of what really makes me me, like my love of celebrity gossip, home renovations and lip gloss, to build trusting relationships because my clients and co-workers appreciate see me authentic.
In turn, I have built a strong personal brand and am respected by other leaders and clients, which has fostered trust and decision-making power. I used my voice and my visibility to help others. Other women can now see themselves in the leadership positions I hold and can easily connect with me for mentorship.
Soon I was no longer the only woman in the room.
Stay curious, raise your hand to seize opportunities and learn to say no
Good career advice involves being curious, always looking to learn new skills, and raising your hand for opportunities that can help you develop those skills. Still, women may need to be more intentional about this.
We should raise our hands for things that advance our careers and personal/professional aspirations, and we should feel comfortable and confident saying no to other requests. (Also read: 4 things successful women in tech want students to know.)
Women tend to say “yes” to projects we are asked to do because we think we might have to. Research confirms that regardless of rank, the median female employee will spend 200 more hours per year on non-rewardable work than their male counterparts. Connecting this to being “the one”, I often felt compelled to do things because there was no one else to do it or because I felt like I had to represent the world. entire population of female business partners.
We also studied this in my practice a few years ago. My female colleagues mostly volunteered for leadership or practice development opportunities (what we call “reinvesting” in my business). This includes things like running junior mentoring circles or creating plans to improve our recruiting strategy, work on proposals or pro bono consulting projects. My male colleagues tended to raise their hands on client projects.
So my advice to women is to ask yourself three questions before saying yes to any extracurricular project or activity:
- Will it benefit my career or my personal goals?
- Does it correspond to an objective or a priority of the company?
- Can I undertake this project without impacting my other responsibilities?
While saying “yes” to a leadership development opportunity alone won’t impact your career, it can have an unintended snowball effect on career advancement.
Leave a Legacy of Other Women Leaders
Even though I see advantages in being the only woman in the room, I don’t want to be. Businesses, from startups to enterprises, have been proven to be more successful with more diversity, whether it’s gender, race/ethnicity and/or ability diversity.
We need women from all walks of life in the room where decisions are made. Without this critical insight, businesses won’t see the results they need and expect.
As someone who is in a position to mentor, I make sure to do that. It can be small scale or large scale. I have one-on-one mentorship with women across my firm, support women’s networking and connectivity events with small groups, and organize larger internal networking events within the firm. I have also sponsored initiatives to help other women, such as our parents’ programs, as this could help our women to have more impact and be happier in their professional lives. Now I also lead our women’s initiative in my company’s strategy and network. We host a series of fireside chats in the C Suite where we welcome female executive clients to talk to the women in the firm and share their experiences and advice. (Also read: “Everything is solvable”: Advice from female tech CEOs.)
It can be intimidating to look around and see no one like you. But there may be opportunities to use it to your advantage and make a difference.
Be unwavering in presenting your authentic self so people notice and remember you; giving back through mentoring and networking with other women; and stay curious, intentionally volunteering for the right opportunities that will advance your professional and personal interests.
Through actions like these, we can all work to bring more women of all backgrounds into tech and leadership roles. And hopefully, one day soon, no woman will again have to deal with being the only woman in the room.