When you are the only woman in a room full of men, it is easy to feel intimidated. Being "the only," you may begin to question whether or not you truly belong in that room. After all, if there are not more women around you, there must be a reason — right? Perhaps you've begun to question whether you are qualified enough for the position or even the intent of why your company hired you. But hold on! As women, we must view our "only-ness" as an asset rather than a barrier. There is value in being the only woman in the room, and you are just as qualified as anyone to be there.
UBWA alumna Jenny Zaerr and Hannah Cedargren both have experience with being "the only woman in the room" in their respective fields. Zaerr works as a Senior Account Manager at Keurig Dr. Pepper within sales—an industry stereotypically comprised of older, white men. Cedargren works for EY within the consulting industry, which is also a male-dominated sector. Both women shared valuable insights with the UBWA Post on handling being the only woman in the room. We can best summarize their advice in five key steps.
Step 1: Understand your worth.
Companies need diverse perspectives — they hired you because your opinion matters to them. A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that businesses in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry average. Women make companies more profitable, but it is up to women to own this metric. Cedargren states, "practice delivering the value of what you bring to the table. If you feel confident in the value that you're delivering, others in the room will see it and want to listen to it." Likewise, Zaerr elaborates that "it doesn't matter if you're showing up to a team of mostly women or men, remember you can always add value based on your knowledge and experiences." Varying perspectives make for a stronger team. Instead of getting caught up in feeling like an outsider, women must recognize that their ideas are worthy and essential.
Step 2: Know how to spot and deal with microaggressions.
Nearly two-thirds of women experience microaggressions at work. Microaggressions are the subtle, yet sometimes not so subtle, acts of sexism, ageism, and racism that many working women grapple with daily. Cedargren, for instance, recalls a microaggression from a client. "The client commented that one day I would likely live in the suburbs and drive my kids in a mini-van to sports practice." Zaerr is thankful not to have experienced gender-based microaggressions at work. She does remember age-related microaggressions related to her younger age relative to many of her coworkers. Zaerr's coworkers frequently teased: "Jenny and her tweeting." This might have been amusing if Zaerr was a Twitter fanatic, but Zaerr says she rarely tweets. Her coworkers just assumed she was an avid Twitter user based on her young age.
Microaggressions can sting a little at first, but it is also important to know how to cope. Instead of looking at microaggressions as an overt attack, women should try to understand the place from which the comment is coming. Cedargren believes women should view microaggressions as "an unconscious bias they might not know they have." Zaerr, similarly, explains in response to the Twitter comments that "People make these comments due to their insecurities. Perhaps they feel behind with technology. Or for the people who do experience gender-based stereotypes — perhaps they don't feel empathetic enough to lead a team of women effectively." Comments that at first feel like an assault on your identity may be a reflection of the person commenting.
Step 3: Take charge of your response.
It is easy to get caught up in the things that we cannot control, like our coworkers' behavior or choice of words, but our responses to interactions are just as important. As Zaerr explains: "We can only control our response soo either embrace their comment or call them out — respectfully, constructively and likely in private. Do whatever you feel compelled. . .but don't be afraid to voice your opinion when everyone already is doing so." In other words, if your coworkers are comfortable voicing their opinion with microaggressions, you should be just as comfortable sharing your own opinions and viewpoints with strength and conviction. Cedargren also offered tips on how to handle microaggressions best. She recommends reporting abusive behavior to human resources or a trusted leader but suggests addressing more well-meaning comments with coworkers as teachable moments. Such situations offer a valuable opportunity for women to take charge of interactions with coworkers. Cedargren reasons: "If the comment is more harmless and you have a good relationship with the individual, consider pulling the person aside and asking if they are open to feedback." Your coworkers may not know that their behavior is problematic in the first place and might appreciate your insight.
Step 4: Embrace your unique identity.
The differences separating you from your coworkers are what make up your identity. Sometimes women fear being trapped in a "box" characterized by a single attribute. They do not want to be reduced to their gender identity, age, race, or ethnicity. As Zaerr points out, however, being defined by your characteristics is not necessarily a bad thing. Zaerr emphasizes that "they are what make you. . . your characteristics can only be elevated by the value and ideas and output you bring every day to work." In essence, we could let our coworkers reduce us to our tropes or recognize how we can contribute effectively to work because of our own unique identities.
Step 5: Fake it 'til you make it!
This may sound counterintuitive, but even if you are not entirely comfortable in your professional role, pretend like you are. Cedargren explains, "Imposter syndrome is real — believe you're meant to be where you are, and others will believe with you." So what if deep down you do not feel qualified enough or deserving of your position right now — you have the job. Own it! Who knows? You might start believing that you earned it, because the truth is, you did!
Thank you to the wonderful UBWA alumna, Jenny Zaerr and Hannah Cedergren, who were so kind as to offer us such excellent advice on this topic. If you would like to learn more about the featured alumna in this post, click on the Featured Alumnae button on the blog's webpage! If you would like to learn more about handling being "the only woman in the room" or discuss this topic further, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.