Women Who Are the Only Woman at Work Are This Much More Likely to Consider Quitting


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AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis

It's not uncommon for women to find themselves the only females in meetings or other workplace situations, despite the fact that women make up almost 46 percent of the country's workforce, according to World Bank. But new research suggests that singularity takes a toll.

Lean In.org and McKinsey & Company conducted their fourth annual study of women at work, looking at 279 companies with 64,000 participating employees. They found that one in five women are often the only females in meetings or other situations at work. That statistic nearly doubles for women in senior-level positions; 40 percent of them reported being alone amongst all men. The statistics aren't all that surprising, as the number of female Fortune 500 CEOs is only 24, which is actually a one-year decline of 25 percent from 32 in 2017. 

The situation is worse for women of color, as 45 percent of them reported being the only person of their race in workplace meetings or on projects, and for LGBT women, as 76 percent of them reported being the only one of their sexuality.

Of course, it's not easy being the only woman (or person of color or LGBT person) at the roundtable.

“We’re inclined to say, ‘We’ve got a woman here at the table, so we must be good,’ not realizing there’s a cost associated with that for the woman sitting there trying to represent an entire 50 percent of the population,” said Alexis Krivkovich, a partner at McKinsey who led the report.

Not only are these women representing half the population and the other females in their companies, but studies also show that women are often talked over and expected to take on mother-manager roles in workplaces, which can only be exacerbated if their alone amongst only male colleagues.

The research dates back. For example, a 1975 study examined 31 overheard conversations and found that, in the 11 conversations between men and women studied, men were behind all but one of the interruptions recorded. Again in 2014, research found that women are more likely to be interrupted by both men and women than men. And another 2014 study that observed 900 minutes of conversations between men and women in the tech industry found that men interrupt others twice as often as women — and they're three times more likely to interrupt a woman as they are a man.

When women aren't being interrupted, they're often being asked to perform mother-manager duties as the "office mom," like grabbing coffee for everyone, scheduling office outings and stocking the kitchen.

Moreover, 80 percent of women categorized under "the Only," as the researchers have dubbed them, compared to two-thirds of women across the board, say they've experienced microaggressions like being mistaken for someone more junior or needing to provide evidence of their competence. They also report being sexually harassed at higher numbers than women who work with other women, the research found.

That's largely why women who spend time as "the Only," as the researchers dubbed them, are one-and-a-half times more likely to consider quitting than women who work with other women. 

“These women are having a much worse experience in the workplace than women who have the opportunity to work with more women,” Lean In president Rachel Thomas, who co-founded the organization with Sheryl Sandberg, said. “They’re feeling like the odd woman out because they are.”

When women work with other women, they have advocates who echo their input in meetings and give them credit where credit is due. And when more women are around and assuming leadership positions, women are more respected in general. Studies show that female leaders even treat and pay their female staff more fairly.

Lean In recommends that companies hire and promote more women, as well as pay attention to teams in which women are far outnumbered. Having a token woman doesn't do a company justice with regards to diversity; rather, promoting a few women instead of more who are deserving of opportunities for advancement can actually hurt a company just as much as it hurts the women left behind.

If diversity and retention are goals, companies should consider this research — but, so far, the representation of women in corporate America hasn’t improved, the research finds.


AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.