The only woman in the room

by Jun 30, 2022

What is your experience of being the only woman in the room?

Times have changed and coffee and women are no longer mentioned in the same sentence, so what do the only woman in the room face in today’s workplace


Jessica (not her real name) is the only woman on her team. In a business unit of about 150 people, she can count the total number of women on a little more than two hands. They are concentrated in the “pink functions,” Legal, HR, and Marketing and she is the sole woman in a P & L operational role.

This was reminiscent of my early career in the steel industry when I was one of three women graduate trainees recruited out of a total of 150. Back in the day trade unionists would refuse to be in a room when a woman was present. They felt it inhibited their communication style. I was assigned key tasks of serving coffee and taking minutes. Decisions made in the formal meeting changed when the men went to the bathroom which confused the hell out of my naïve trainee brain.

Times have changed and coffee and women are no longer mentioned in the same sentence, so Jessica’s experience is somewhat different. She is also more senior, older, and worldly. But nevertheless, her experiences are typical of what “only’ women (or one of any demographic) face in today’s workplace.


The only woman in the room

Only woman in the room

  • Male colleagues know each other from previous work experiences and have an established bond. No effort is made to include her.
  • They are given the plum assignments.
  • She is given other tasks quite often related to ‘office housework” which will have no impact on her KPIs.
  • She has a smaller share of the geographic territory than her male co-worker.
  • At one time she was senior to her male colleagues but during her maternity leave of only 6 months,  they were advanced and she fell behind.

Research from McKinsey “One is the Loneliest Number” suggests that for women, being the only woman in the room is common.  20% of women reported this being a common occurrence. For women of colour this figure rises to 45%. This research covered 64,000 employees and 279 companies in North America but would not be unusual in other geographies.

Their study suggests that when women are the solitary woman in the room they are more likely to:

  • have their judgment questioned than women working in a more balanced environment (49% versus 32 %),
  • be mistaken for someone more junior (35% versus 15% ),
  • be subjected to unprofessional and demeaning remarks (24% versus 14 %).
  • be overlooked for promotion and stretch opportunities

Gender balance

I have worked with CEOs who believe that because they have one woman on the ExCo they have gender balance. Job done. In another event 8 out of 50 participants were women and the men also thought that was adequate representation.  Despite the fact that having more women on teams improves collective intelligence and they exhibit stronger scores on all levels of leadership we are still not doing enough to change the experience of women in the workplace.

This is before we get into discussions around blatant sexism and harassment.

Critical mass

  • Build critical mass. One is not enough. as a minimum  female representation should be 30%
  • Give them stretch assignments
  • Check the inclusivity of your communication style
  • Check your biases – they are usually rife.
  • Sponsor them.
  • Review career processes and build up a solid female talent pipeline.

This is not to say that sole women are not successful. They are. But frequently they have “leaned in” so far they are fully integrated into the male-coded dominant group and have adapted beyond recognition.

All of these experiences and the need to feel they have to prove themselves constantly lead to feelings of isolation, self-doubt anxiety and depression. The reality is that “only” women are more likely to consider leaving their organisations (26%).

This is true for Jessica.

Want to improve gender balance on your organisation’s talent pipeline. Get in touch NOW!




Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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