Are You the Only Woman in The Room? Use it to Your Advantage.
According to Danielle Phaneuf, Cloud & Digital Strategy Leader at PwC no woman should have to be the only woman in the room. But if you are, there are insights you can take away from the experience.
Despite increased corporate commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion, sustained social movements, and large investments in early education STEM, women are still underrepresented in tech. According to a recent study, women hold only 5% of leadership positions in the tech sector and, based on a recent Statista study, women make up only around 25% of CIOs across industries.
Women are also underrepresented as entrepreneurs, despite many studies showing that female-founded startups outperform those founded by men. Women-owned businesses make up only about 20% of all employers according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And that number could shrink due to higher female unemployment and a greater proportion of women leaving the labor market due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Also read: How the Pandemic Is Affecting Women in Tech.)
With that as a backdrop, it is not surprising that, while I work alongside more female peers and clients now than in the past, it’s still not uncommon for me to be the only woman in a room. Over the years, I’ve found ways to challenge stereotypes about gender, champion my perspective to flourish in my career and ultimately appreciate some of the opportunities that come along with being the only woman in a work setting.
This perspective helped me become my firm’s first female Cloud & Digital Strategy & partner, sponsor a number of female colleagues and mentees and lead many of our women’s initiatives in the firm. I’d like to share a few of the perspectives and other tips that have helped me. I hope my learnings help you, too.
Here are my takeaways from being the only woman in the room:
Own Your Individuality and Embrace Being the Only One
Early in my career, I didn’t fully realize how my gender might impact me in the workplace—and perhaps I didn’t fully acknowledge the biases that were present. Yet I learned—through personal experiences, reading and listening to industry thought leaders and more importantly conversations with peers—that gender impacted others’ perception of me. However, I saw, and continue to see, my inclusion as an advantage and a differentiator. (Also read: Not a Monolith: 3 Top Women in Tech Share Their Journeys.)
Companies need womens' perspectives: 85% of CEOs whose organizations have a diversity and inclusion strategy say it has enhanced business performance, and 77% say it has enhanced customer satisfaction.
As the only woman in a room, I can also provide new and valuable perspectives because of my unique life experiences and strengths. For example, I’ve embraced my strength as an empathetic leader which means that I can see some of the more subtle impacts of the difficult recommendations we make. I am intuitive and have developed a high degree of emotional intelligence, which translates into a strong ability to understand what is really on a client’s mind or what is behind a colleague’s performance.
As the only woman in the room, it also makes it harder for someone to forget me. I can use that distinction to more easily set up follow-up conversations, network and build relationships. I have learned to use some of what makes me truly me—like my love of celebrity gossip, home improvement and lip gloss—to build more trusted relationships, as both my clients and my colleagues appreciate seeing my authentic self.
In turn, I’ve built a strong personal brand and am respected by other leaders and clients, which has fostered trust and decision-making power. I’ve used my voice and visibility to help others. Other women can now see themselves in the leadership positions I occupy and can easily connect with me for mentorship.
Soon, I wasn’t the only woman in the room.
Stay Curious, Raise Your Hand for Opportunities—and Learn to Say No
Any good career advice includes being curious, always seeking to learn new skills and raising your hand for opportunities that can help you build those skills. Yet, women may need to be more intentional about it.
We should raise our hands for things that advance our career and personal/professional aspirations, and we should feel comfortable and confident in saying no to other asks. (Also read: 4 Things Successful Women in Tech Want Students to Know.)
Women tend to say "yes" to projects we’re asked to do because we think we might have to do it. Research backs this up: Independent of rank, the median female employee will devote 200 more hours per year on non-promotable work than her male counterparts. Tying this back to being “the only,” I often found myself feeling obligated to do things because there was no one else to do it or because I felt like I had to represent the firm's entire female partner population.
We actually studied this at my firm a few years ago, too. My female colleagues predominantly volunteered for leadership or practice development opportunities (what we call “Reinvest” at my firm). This includes things like running junior mentoring circles or creating plans for enhancing our recruiting strategy, working 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 a project or extracurricular activity:
- Will this benefit my career or my personal goals?
- Does this map towards a company goal or priority?
- Can I take on this project without impacting my other responsibilities?
While saying "yes" to one leadership development opportunity won’t singlehandedly impact your career, it can have an unintended snowball effect for career advancement.
Leave a Legacy of Other Women Leaders
While I see advantages to 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—be it diversity in gender, race/ethnicity and/or abilities.
We need women from all backgrounds in the room where decisions are made. Without these critical perspectives, businesses won’t see the results they need and expect.
As someone who is in a position to mentor, I make sure to do so. It can be in small ways or it can be in big ways. I have one-to-one mentoring with women from across my firm, I support women’s networking and connectivity events with small groups and I host larger internal networking events in the firm. I have also sponsored initiatives to help other women, such as our parents’ programs because it could help our women be more impactful and happier in their professional lives. Now, I also run our women’s initiative in my firm’s strategy and network. We host a C-suite fireside chat series where we host executive women clients to speak to the women at the firm and share their experiences and advice. (Also read: 'Everything Is Solvable': Advice From Female CEOs in Tech.)
It can be daunting to look around and not see anyone like yourself. But there can be opportunities to use it to your advantage and make a difference.
Be unwavering in showcasing your authentic self so that people notice and remember you; pay it forward by 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 in more women of all backgrounds into technology and leadership roles. And, hopefully, one day soon, no woman will have to face being the only woman in the room again.