How to Survive Being the Only Woman in the Workplace
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You’ve read Feminist Fight Club and Bossypants. You follow Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner's site @lennyletter and actress @annakendrick47 on Instagram while posting inspirational memes about fixing your ponytail and handling it. You dutifully re-tweet comediennes Amy Schumer and Mindy Kaling and like posts from Michelle Obama and Arianna Huffington on Facebook. You religiously attend your Lean In Circle meetings and sweat it out during spin to Beyoncé. You know who runs the world.
There are so many positive trends to point to when it comes to the progress women have made since, well, really any point in history from which you’d like to start counting.
For those of us who are the only women in our workplaces -- or the only woman on a particular team or in management -- the weight of all this expectation and promise can be a burden. Even if you’re unshakably confident, unperturbed by being perceived as bitchy and deft at handling the slights you encounter, being the only one can be hard in the subtlest ways.
When I was younger, my mom gave me notecards that said “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.” It took a year of being the only woman at my company to fully appreciate what that meant: You are expected to perform (at least as) well, but without pointing out why what you’re doing is actually more challenging, because you must navigate landmines of preconceived notions and pernicious bias your male counterparts simply don’t.
Here are a few ways to overcome the daily grind of being a lone soldier:
Become fluent in a tongue that isn’t your own, but don’t lose your native language.
I hold my own in “guy talk.” I have my own (i.e. not my husband’s) ESPN Insider account, I play in multiple fantasy football leagues and I enjoy a good chirp with the best of them. But, I’m still not a guy, and some of the things that I also enjoy talking about are not necessarily topics that the men around me consider. A few months of never slipping into your native language can be exhausting. My advice: Don’t pretend to be “one of the guys,” but instead proudly own that you’re able to join their conversations and challenge them to talk about other topics, too. Serena Williams and the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team might be good neutral ground to start.
Pick your battles and be patient.
I fully support you if you wake up every morning and channel your modern-day Joan of Arc to crusade for women’s equality at your workplace. But girl, you’re going to be tired awfully quickly if you go this route, because someone will say something every day that will get you worked up. You can’t go to the mat every time; instead, start with a few choice words. A quick, “Really?” or “That’s bold” goes a long way to correcting behaviors without embarrassing the person or appearing overly confrontational.
This doesn't apply, however, when your credibility, performance and/or authority are on the line. I was running a meeting to launch a new process with a dozen attendees when a male peer interrupted me to say that he “didn’t think this would work.” I calmly replied that perhaps we could talk about it one-on-one after the meeting -- at which point I told him point blank that his comment was totally unacceptable and disrespectful.
Build an inclusive, supportive #squad.
Plenty has already been written about women failing to support each other, and I find that this is acutely problematic in situations where one woman is about to have female co-workers for the first time. Be honest: If you’re the woman who figured it out on her own, do you feel a little bitter that anyone who comes after you shouldn’t have to scale the mountain too? Do you feel possessive of the relationships you’ve built and the reputation you’ve earned? GET OVER IT.
The best thing you can do for your career is to earn the trust and respect of everyone -- especially other women. Reach out to women in other companies who are your peers. Attend networking events even if you hate going (I can’t stand them) and bring your friends, too. Set an example of awesomeness for all the women who join the ranks after you and make that your legacy -- not that of the only woman who managed to make it through Survivor: Business Edition.
Remember, while you may be the first or only woman in your particular scenario, countless have come before and more will follow. Persist in your ambitions, call on the community to support you, and remember this gem from the aforementioned Anna Kendrick: “You can still be a good person and not the nicest one in the room.”