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The power of being the only woman in the room

When I was in college, my dad told me there were no senior women in his law firm.  And then he said, “But when there is an executive woman in the room, everyone pays attention. Take advantage of this and make sure you have something smart to say.”

Fast forward 25+ years and not a ton has changed. Women are making progress but it is slow and often in the entry to middle management levels within the corporate world. Start-ups and small businesses are better – largely because we make our own rules – but women struggle to secure anywhere near the amount of funding men get. The pressure of being an “only” is palpable. 

I would also argue you can make a lot out of being an only. I have been one of a few or an only for all of the leadership-level years in my career. Once I realized I had a choice to either let this intimidate me or to use it to my advantage, I realized there could be power in this situation and I chose the latter. That being said, I have suffered my fair share of discrimination and harassment, but the more senior I became the more I could see it coming and the better prepared I could be to shut it down. And the better I became at using my position as an only to benefit other women who couldn’t be in the room or at the table.

It is really hard to be one of the few or only women in leadership roles. There can be an unspoken expectation that you represent all women — all women’s abilities, qualities, needs, and personalities — just by being there. If you fail, there is a worry that people will think all women will fail in that role, that the “woman experiment” didn’t work. Not to mention there are few or no mentors above you who are women who have broken the ceiling before you and can help you out. And for men who want to be more supportive, you may be the only person they can turn to understand why the workplace is different for women, which piles on an additional educational responsibility.

But in a time when inclusion is a hot topic, people are taking more notice when there are women in the room and we can work that big time. Do your homework and prep like mad so you’re ready to ask sharp questions and bring new ideas to the table. Your ability to stand out as different can be leveraged as an opportunity to bring fresh thinking. There is power in being in the spotlight.

If you are an only, make sure you’ve got your own personal support group outside of work. Women are going through many of the same things in all spaces, but when we aren’t together it is hard to remember that. Be sure to get your reminders.

When I’m an only I feel like I can be the voice of all the great women behind me and around me. I find that inspiring and comforting. I imagine they are all there with me in spirit cheering me on.  Especially when I know I’m being evaluated beyond my personal abilities and merits. They empower me.

Founder & CEO of EQUITY FOR WOMEN, Women's Leadership Advisor and Speaker