Chances are, most people have experienced an “only” moment. Ours included being the only Jewish kid in the class as The Merchant of Venice was being discussed and plans for Christmas reviewed, and being the only woman and person of color in a room full of older men and about to tell the group that they needed to shift their strategy.
All of these experiences brought with them anxiety, pressure, and a sense of being on the spot: if we said or did the wrong thing, stereotypes would get reinforced or prejudices confirmed. Other people, we recognize, experience far worse.
For women, being an “only” in the workplace is endemic. Twenty percent of the women in our latest Women in the Workplace report said they were commonly the only person of their gender in the room or one of very few. The figure is far higher in some sectors such as technology and engineering. For women of color, that number rose to 45 percent. For men, it was just 7 percent.
These statistics, from a study of 64,000 employees and 279 companies in North America, are a sobering gauge of how frustratingly slow progress is toward gender equality in most companies. In the past five years, the proportion of white-collar women joining companies has risen steadily to reach near parity with men. But female representation still diminishes along the corporate pipeline, and in the C-suite it is stuck at one in five.
The more encouraging news is that those same statistics point to a potentially forceful way to break through: say no to “onliness.”
We know women are more likely to experience discrimination in the workplace than men. But the study shows the odds are higher still when women find themselves alone in a group of men (exhibit). They are far more likely than others to have their judgment questioned than women working in a more balanced environment (49 percent versus 32 percent), to be mistaken for someone more junior (35 percent versus 15 percent), and to be subjected to unprofessional and demeaning remarks (24 percent versus 14 percent). If they are treated like this, no wonder they get overlooked for promotion.
Banishing onliness does not replace the goal of gender parity in the C-suite nor the need for a more complex strategy to achieve it. But our research suggests it will diminish some of the barriers that hold women back. Importantly, it is also a relatively simple goal toward which visible progress can start today with a few practical measures, such as the following:
A word of caution: We do not want to suggest women onlys never succeed. On the contrary, plenty do. And plenty feel supported in their work and ambition. That said, the research shows they are more likely to contemplate leaving their jobs (26 percent) than other women (17 percent) and employees overall (19 percent).
And our research reveals how to bring the “only” population into line with others in terms of job satisfaction and intent to leave. Sponsors who give them stretch assignments, highlight their good work to others, and advocate on their behalf for new opportunities move the needle most. Middle managers are naturally positioned to be the first line of change.
By Kevin Sneader and Lareina Yee
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