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Episode 8

What it’s like to be the only woman in the room


Nikki Waller, Lareina Yee, Marianne Cooper

About this Episode

Under pressure to perform. On guard. Isolated. When you’re the only or one of the only women in the room, your workplace experience is significantly worse. We’re joined by experts from McKinsey, Stanford, and the Wall Street Journal to dig into new research on what it's like to be the only one, what companies can do about it, and why when a woman leaves her job, she’s not going home—she's going to your competitor.

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Rachel Thomas: Welcome to Tilted, a Lean In Podcast. Each week we explore the uneven playing field—the gender bias that lurks in unexpected places, the impact it has on our everyday lives, and what happens when women lean in and start driving change. I’m your host Rachel Thomas, co-founder and president of Lean In.

For those of you who don’t know, each year Lean In and McKinsey & Company conduct Women in the Workplace, the largest study of its kind, and for the fourth year in a row, the numbers tell the same story and boy, is it depressing – women are underrepresented at every level in corporate America, and it’s far worse for women of color. And here’s the thing, contrary to conventional wisdom, women are not hitting a glass ceiling late in their careers. The problem starts early -- right at the entry level and right at the first step up to manager.

Women are less likely to be hired into entry-level jobs and they are far less likely to get promoted to manager – so about two-thirds of managers end up being men, compared to only a third of women – and from that point on, women never catch up. And because there are too few women, there end up being too many what we call “Onlys,” women who are the only or one of the only women in the room. And they are having a significantly worse experience than other women. In this episode, we dig into the Only experience, the impact it’s having on women at work, and what companies can do about it.

Before we get started, let’s hear what it feels like to be an Only from a few women in their own words, starting with Elena Gomez, CFO of Zendesk:

Elena Gomez: I know from my own experience that I’m often the only woman in the room and often the only woman of color in the room and that is imposing at times and intimidating.

Rachel: Next is Bozoma St. John, one of my favorites, CMO of Endeavor:

Bozoma St. John: And I was in the green room in my pink fitted dress getting ready to be miked up and the sound engineer was like “I don't know where to put this mike pack.” I was like “I'm about to go in front of 19 million people and present a new interface on an idea that could get harshly criticized, myself included, and we’re worried about my mike pack because we don't know how to put it on a woman's dress?”

Rachel: Now you’ll hear from Frances Frei, a professor at the Harvard Business School:

Frances Frei: I’m the only one in every professional room I’m in, so whether it’s with tenured faculty at the Harvard Business School, when I’m working with senior executives at corporations, I’m I think always the only lesbian in the room. I do remember one time when I was asked to go teach a program, I think in Abu Dhabi, and I said to the person who asked me to do it, a senior member of the faculty at Harvard, I was like “I don't think it's a good idea.” And he's like “oh, you're a great teacher.” I was like “Yeah, no, I know, but I don't think it's a great idea because it's illegal to be gay in Abu Dhabi.” And he was startled but then had a look like of course and said, “Oh, you'll be fine. It'll be safe.” And I was like “a. you don't know that and b. that's not the point that I'll be fine. I don't want to go teach in a place where it's illegal to be gay.”

Rachel: And last, but certainly not least, Geisha Williams, CEO and President of PG&E:

Geisha Williams: I went to a conference for the electric industry and I walked into this conference center and there was probably 250 people there and I was the only woman. And I thought to myself, “That's not right.” I mean for this sort of sentiment of being the only 30 years ago is one thing, but to have been the only woman leader in this conference three, four years ago, I felt appalled.

Rachel: I am thrilled to be sitting down today with Marianne Cooper and Lareina Yee, two of my co-authors on Women in the Workplace, our big study every year and our fantastic partner, Nikki Waller from the Wall Street Journal. Marianne is a sociologist at VMWare’s Women's Leadership Innovation Lab at Stanford University and was a lead researcher on the book Lean In. Marianne, we're thrilled to have you.

Marianne Cooper: It's good to be here.

Rachel: Lareina is a senior partner at McKinsey & Company and leads the organization's Diversity inclusion efforts globally.

Lareina Yee: It's wonderful to be here.

Rachel: And Nikki is editor for Live Journalism and Special coverage at the Wall Street Journal, so she oversees everything the Journal does live and is our point person on Women in the Workplace and has been an amazing partner. So happy to have you.

Nikki Waller: Thanks for having me.

Rachel: So Marianne, to kick things off, walk us through our findings on Onlys.

Marianne: So, what we learned is that about 25% of employees in corporate America are the only or one of the only in the room, meaning the only woman, the only person of color in the room. So, this both reflects the underrepresentation of these groups in corporate America, but it also sets in motion a whole set of negative dynamics. This is research that was pioneered by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, she is a professor at Harvard Business School and she wrote a book in 1977 called Men and Women of the Corporation, which was an ethnography of a Fortune 500 company. And one thing she talks about in her book is the experiences of 20 women, they were in a sales group of 300 people. And these women were scattered across 14 offices - there’s only 20 of them in 1977, and she analyzed their experiences and what she described is that this whole tokenism dynamic took place, where women weren't seen as the individuals that they are, they were seen as sort of representative of all women. And when this happened a few negative things start to occur. One is that they're highly visible. So, one woman in a sea of men stands out, she draws a larger share of the attention.

Rachel: Literally stands out.

Marianne: Same as, you know, when there's only one black person in a room of all white people or any other scenario we can create where you are the only one, you draw a larger share of attention. And what then happens is that because of that heightened visibility, your performance becomes scrutinized. Everything you say and do can be put under a microscope and while you are just an individual person, your individual success or failure can become representative of your larger group, which means me, as an individual woman, my success or performance becomes a litmus test for what women as a group are capable of, which raises the stakes on any kind of performance, so that's where we see Onlys feeling a lot of pressure to perform on guard and like they're left out. The other dynamic that occurs is, it leads to greater stereotyping. So, when there's a team and five of them are women, the variation among those five women helps to counter generalizations about women, but when there's only one woman and she's a stand in for all women, that actually primes gender stereotypes. So, there's greater pressure to conform to expectations, traditional feminine expectations. So, when a woman only is in that situation, she is expected to conform and then when she steps outside those gender lines, she gets a lot of pushback. So, all of that together means it's a much worse experience when you're the only, or one of the only, in the room, and that's exactly what our research finds.

Rachel: And how many women are onlys?

Marianne: One in five women are onlys, 40% of women in senior roles. Women in technical roles, 45% of women of color, 35% of men of color, 76% of lesbians and 70% of gay men.

Rachel: Lareina, can you walk through a little bit about what we learned and why you think it matters?

Lareina: Sure, let me start with, maybe a story, a very personal story, so I'm a woman, obviously, I'm also Chinese, I'm a woman of color in the United States. There are many times I will walk into a room that has a power dynamic in it and I will be the only one to deliver that your strategy is wrong, that you need to change the course of your portfolio investments, really hard topics and it is hard to be the only one. It's an incredible experience of both performance pressure at the same time, as well as a sense of isolation and people will describe it differently. And what's really interesting is, in our data, we give data and facts to something that women experience all the time.

Nikki: The story that the Journal published on this phenomenon had, when I read it the first time, my jaw dropped. I mean, what some of these women who are incredibly accomplished women were saying, one thing was it's like they don't even see you. On the one hand, you are so conspicuous because you're the only person who is like you at the table and on the other hand, people talk right over you. We have someone who was the former president of the American Bar Association, who was a lawyer for 40 years, and still regularly gets mistaken for a defendant in the courtrooms that she goes into. Or a juror or a stewardess at one point or another. So, there is also that there is this assumption that you are not the person that your qualifications determine that you are. And then, also, when you go kind of off campus right, I mean at least in a meeting everybody knows what they're supposed to be doing and they know what their roles are. And then our sources talk to us about go to the company picnic or some dinner, and it's actually even worse because people go right back to their social biases. And we have one woman that we talked to in a story, a Marketing Director, who found herself at a dinner with 12 other male colleagues and they spent a lot of time talking about labor and their wives and labor and it was like the first days of having kids. And she was not asked a question at all until finally she said “yeah, you know, it is amazing, my child just walked out of my womb in 30 seconds.” So, that kind of shut it down, but you really have to have that moxie if you're the only player at the table.

Lareina: I think the concept of being invisible and visible at the same time is really well said, Nikki.

Rachel: The one think that I think is really important for people to realize is, it also has an impact on how you can perform. So, I'll give you an example - years ago, I had co-founded an ed-tech startup. My co-founder was a man, wonderful man, and we were on Sand Hill Road pitching and I would do the main presentation, I did the dog and pony show, and then we all sat down and there was the Q & A section. And after about three or four pitches, we were walking out on the sidewalk and he said to me, “Rachel, you're really letting me down, you're not speaking up enough in the post pitch Q & A and I need you to be pulling your weight.” And I had a moment of clarity where I said to him, “just watch the next time that we do the pitch, watch what happens.” We do it, we get out on the sidewalk and he says, “oh my god, they don't ask you any questions. I can't believe you talk as much as you do.” It was completely reframed for him but it was an issue of performance, like he actually thought I was letting him down and not doing enough. And when he realized how hard I was working to speak up and contribute to the conversation, his whole sense of my performance changed and I think that's a really big piece here, is that organizations need to realize we're not at all saying, getting one woman on the team isn't a good thing, I mean we want women at the tables where decisions are made, we want women at the tables where important discussions are being held, but if it's only one woman and she feels isolated and she feels on guard, it's so much harder for her to be her best self and to really contribute.

Lareina: It's also interesting how male allies can help. I love that example because it happens all the time, not just in Silicon Valley, but what oftentimes male leaders ask is, “What can I do?” And they're thinking, “do I need to change my entire maternity or paternity leave policy?” And yes, you should take a look at that, but there are smaller things you can do every single day - you are in a meeting most likely with a single woman multiple times a day, making sure she's heard. I was in a meeting and all these guys were talking over, they were so enthusiastic I couldn't get a word in edgewise. And finally, one of the senior folks in the room said “Lareina, I think you've been trying to get in there. What's your point of view on this?” and just helped shift the conversation back to me. So, I do think there are things that men can do to help in these moments, where Onlys are in the spotlight and having a harder time.

Rachel: Let’s talk a little bit about, what does the data say or what does the data point to in terms of what it looks like day to day to be an Only?

Lareina: I think one interesting thing is that there is a penalty for companies when women or people of color experience being an Only, which is they're less likely to feel happy and satisfied in their organization and they're less likely to stay. And if we tie that back to our overall research that says that only 2% of women leave the workforce to take care of their families, that means that when a woman decides to leave, she's not leaving to go home, she's leaving to go to your competitor.

Rachel: That's a great point. We also looked at what are called microaggressions - these are everyday slights or everyday discrimination that women face. And we know Only’s are much more likely to experience these everyday slights. Marianne, can you talk a little bit about what that looks like?

Marianne: microaggressions are behaviors, actions, statements that demean, insult and exclude people from underrepresented groups. And it can range from a smaller slight, like somebody talking over somebody else, to much more hostile explicit actions, like derogatory comments. But the intent of these actions and behaviors, whether intentional or unintentional, is that it communicates to underrepresented groups often that they're less competent and that they don't belong and they're repeated and regular, they happen all the time in team meetings, often every day it can even happen for people and they add up and over time, what this means is that people are dealing with feeling devalued and overlooked and they pay a price for that, both emotionally and professionally, it's exhausting and taxing for them on a day to day basis.

Rachel: So, we know that men are Onlys too. What does that experience look like?

Marianne: So, the important thing to understand about the experience of being the only one is it's not just about low numbers, it's about the intersection between low numbers and low status. In other words, the reason why people are having these worst experiences is not just because they're the only one but they're the only one of a lower status group. So, for example, research has shown that when white men are tokens, it's not so bad. Actually, a colleague of mine, Christine Williams at UT in Austin, did this groundbreaking study of white men who work in nursing, a woman-dominated occupation and what she found is that because of gendered expectations that men are more competent and often better at leadership, they were riding what she called the “glass escalator.” People made the assumption, and made the mistaken assumption that they were doctors, so they benefited from that. My other colleague, Adia Harvey Wingfield at University of Washington in St. Louis, then studied black men working in nursing. They didn't get to ride that glass escalator. Instead of being mistaken for doctors, they were mistaken as janitors. So, they had a much more negative experience and were seen as less skilled and less competent than their women counterparts. So, when low numbers interact with low status, that's when you get the negative experience of being an Only.

Rachel: One thing I was struck by is that men in general, they most often say they feel included. And for women, it was under pressure, on guard, and left out. And that's a very different experience and that's obviously predominately white men and that's how they feel.

Marianne: Right, it reflects their higher status position.

Nikki: That's one takeaway that I really got from all the reporting this year and all the data, is how much harder work is when you're the Only. First of all, you're representing your entire demographic at the table and so many of the women that we talked to in our stories this year described how they would stay quiet in meetings and be very, very sure that what they had to say was sharp and incisive because if it wasn't, they would feel a double penalty for not making the super strong point - they can't just throw ideas out there in the same way that everybody else at the table could. And while you can make an argument that yes, everyone in business meetings should be putting themselves together and putting their best foot forward, it really is a level of self-editing but you can't even imagine before someone gets to speak at a meeting.

Marianne: And it's fundamentally socially isolating to be the only one. And so, you can talk about it as death by 10,000 papercuts and you can describe it as never seeing anyone who looks like you, but all of these things add up and compound, and leading to these really negative experiences.

Rachel: We also looked at sexual harassment this year. And given the Me Too movement, I really think, let's stop and pause and talk about what we learned and why we think it matters. So, top line, Lareina, what's happening in the workplace today, particularly corporate America, when it comes to sexual harassment?

Lareina: We have a pervasive problem, let's face it. We have 35% of women who have been sexually harassed at some point in their career. 35% is a very high number. And this ranges from anything, from hearing a sexist joke to being touched inappropriately. And this is absolutely higher for women in senior leadership, 55%; women in technical fields, 45%; and lesbian women, 48%. But beyond this, what I think is something for us to reflect on is that companies report that they do have a policy framework in place but I think it's not working. So, companies do have policies in place, but employees aren't always buying it, in terms of perception that there will be risk or negative consequences to reporting, in terms of their perception of how quickly things will be addressed. These are the softer factors. And so, companies need to likely move beyond the policies and start thinking about how you do the training, how you do the understanding, how do you have the expertise when something happens so that you actually create a much different environment.

Nikki: And one note on that data, those numbers are incredibly high. Thirty five percent of women experiencing some form of sexual harassment is incredibly high. And yet, this data set that you guys have assembled, these are the good companies, these are the companies that are willing to let us look at the progression of women, these are the companies that are taking enough care with this issue that they're devoting this time. So, not to bring everyone further down, but I suspect that if the real numbers across the American workforce are probably a little bit more daunting even.

Lareina: Nikki, it’s a great point because this looks at corporations and the corporate sector. So, these are largely, if you think about Fortune 1000, Fortune 2000 companies with the staff and support to think about the right frameworks. This does not include the public sector, the government sector, education sector, or hourly or gig economy wage workers, so if you think of a total economy look, that likely looks quite different.

Rachel: I was really struck, I have to say, that only 60% of employees think a sexual harassment claim would be fairly investigated and just about a third think it would be addressed quickly. And this is men and women. So, that means back to your point, Lareina, they have policies in place, of course, by the way, they have to, but they have policies in place and those policies say sexual harassment will not be tolerated. How do you go beyond that so employees see that it's not tolerated? And what does that look like? And I think that starts with company leadership speaking much more vocally on the issue, repeatedly, loudly, making sure that claims are really thoroughly investigated, no matter how senior the person the claim is against and really just walking the walk on this, so employees feel like they're a lot safer and more supported when they're at work. It's just a big gap between saying it matters and showing it matters.

Marianne: Yeah, the biggest predictor of sexual harassment in our organization is how permissive the culture is of misconduct. The problem is that, if more minor kinds of misconduct are happening and there's no sanctions, there's no investigation, then that can send a signal that this is OK here and then that opens the door to further bad behavior. So, it is really important for companies to have a plan in place for what they do, how they approach these things that really clear guidelines about what is appropriate and professional behavior and what isn't and what the consequences are going to be.

Rachel: This year's report includes these great case studies from different companies and one was from Mozilla and I was really amazed to see what they had done because they've gone beyond what's not acceptable and what that looks like and what they're going to do if there's bad behavior and they've taken the time to really articulate what good, respectful, inclusive behavior looks like in real detail, like examples of what to do and what not to do. And I think that's incredibly helpful to employees because reading some other examples, it’s small things that I think a lot of us really wouldn’t think as much about, like touching someone's tattoo without the kind of explicit permission or a pregnant belly or I mean, I'm always horrified how many black women say that their hair is sometimes touched in the workplace. And all of those things are disrespectful. And I think a lot of times even people with the best intentions don't fully think about how those actions play out and the impact they have on the people around them. How does getting more women into organizations and reducing the number of Only’s, how does that help with sexual harassment?

Marianne: Well, sexual harassment is less likely to occur when there's more women around. So being one of just a few women is actually a risk factor for sexual harassment. We see that in our data, where women who are Onlys are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment at some point in their career. So, diversifying the workplace, bringing more women into leadership, it helps to tamp down on sometimes hypermasculine environments that can have these kinds of behaviors. But what it also can do is show that power is being divided among and shared among people in a company and that helps to change the culture as well.

Rachel: Yeah, I mean it's not rocket science but if you look up in an organization and you see more women and you've been sexually harassed as a woman, you have to imagine you feel more comfortable putting a claim in, you feel like there's someone at the table with more empathy and more kind of understanding of what your particular experiences are. It just feels like common sense.

Marianne: When companies are more diverse, they're likely getting a lot of things right. So, having more women at the top both signals that these issues can come to the fore, but they also probably have better processes in place to begin with, which is why they are more diverse, so it's sort of a virtuous cycle.

Rachel: What can companies do to minimize the number of Onlys? And if you are an Only, to make that experience better?

Lareina: Awareness is the first step. So, in the first instance, understanding what Onlys are and what the experience is and how that impacts your team. So, that's the first piece. I think in a more practical way, there are some companies who are being more creative in thinking through how do you create critical mass of women, how do you change culture in small pockets because we don't actually have enough women overall in the company to change the entirety? So, what that might mean is, let's say you have 10 project teams running, instead of spreading them across, so there's one in every single location or team, why wouldn't you put three in each one? Now what that would mean is that there would be some teams that would be all male, but there would also be some teams that would have a critical mass or a tipping point of women. My bet is that the women who work day to day in groups that have more women, more diverse voices at the table, are probably having a better experience.

Rachel: They're able to bring their best selves to work.

Lareina: They also are starting to get the mentorship, they're also getting the sponsorship, and the likelihood that they'll rise over time is higher.

Rachel: Well, also we know Onlys are more likely to leave. So, if you want to hang on to women who are Onlys, who we know are also more ambitious, they're more interested in getting promoted to the next level, they're more interested in being top leaders and getting all the way to the very, very upper echelons of their organization, and yet they're more likely to leave. So, it seems like good money is on investing in making sure we have fewer Onlys and the Onlys we do have are better supported so they stay.

Marianne: Yeah, another thing to focus on is the range of biases that people can experience, so having unconscious bias training that actually takes microaggressions head on and enables people to understand that while a lot of people from underrepresented groups experience these microaggressions, people who are Onlys are much more likely to, which means if you're a manager and you have one woman on your team or one person of color on your team, you need to be really thinking about and looking for those dynamics and changing the way your team interacts to better support people who are feeling very socially isolated.

Lareina: I also think that this doesn't take companies off the hook on some of the systems levels and basic changes that they need to put in place. So, everything from aggressively recruiting 50 to 50% slates, not just at entry level but why aren't you bringing experience professionals in that have more balance slates and looking for the most talented women to actually change your pipeline in one year?

Rachel: We really see a pattern of companies not treating gender diversity like the business priority it is. So, if you want to drive change in your organization, you need a really strong business case and you need to back it up with numbers, you need to set goals, people need to know what the goals are, you need to track and make sure you're making progress, and then you need to reward folks for success and hold them accountable. And yet, very few companies are doing these things. So, I think a lot of it is how do we switch the conversation from what I think is still a bit of diversity and gender diversity are nice to haves instead of they’re must haves because if it's a must have, companies get the things that are must haves done or they wouldn't survive.

Lareina: I agree.

Rachel: So, ladies this has been an amazing conversation and we obviously all know each other really well because we work feverishly on this project together every year, but I've always wondered why? Because I mean we kill ourselves to get this out the door. Why is this project so important? Marianne, I'll start with you, why do you work on Women in the Workplace and why do you think all this data matters?

Marianne: I think this is how we make things better for everyone. We proved that there is a problem, what the problem is, and when you understand what's wrong and why it's broken, that's how you can start to fix it.

Rachel: Lareina, how about you?

Lareina: I think it's important we pay it forward for the next generation. So, I feel like all this research and the way in which we are helping companies change will make it better for women 10 and 20 years ahead.

Rachel: Nikki, how about you?

Nikki: Well, I think first of all, coming from the Wall Street Journal, we're a paper that is read by the people who are in charge and it is important for them to see this data—they can't argue with it, there is a ton of reporting. And the most rewarding thing I think I told you guys this every year is you talk to executives, you talk to CEOs throughout the year, and they remember this report, they order extra copies for their staff. This is something that is driving a conversation within companies and it's awesome to be a part of that.

Rachel: The other thing that always really resonates with me personally is when you talk to a woman, and particularly a woman of color and LGBTQ women, and she says “you've put data behind what I'm experiencing every day, you’re validating that this is actually the experience I'm having.” I think that really matters. Because we want companies to change, we want to move the dial, but I think there's actually some comfort in understanding that it's not just you, that it’s pervasive and this is something that all women are facing. So, the numbers really matter from that perspective, as well.

Rachel: Huge thanks—huge—to Lareina, Marianne, and Nikki—and not just for today’s conversation, but for being so committed to this report and the work we’re all doing to advance women. I love these ladies.

And believe it or not, we only covered a fraction of the findings from this year’s report, and we only touched on a few of our recommendations for moving the numbers. To learn more, visit And I always say this for everybody else, I’m going to repeat it, that’s

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Our producer is Jordan Bell. Special thanks to Katie Miserany, Ali Bohrer, Megan Rooney, and Sarah Maisel from the Lean In team and Laura Mayer at Stitcher.

Our engineers are Ryan Roberts and Bianca Taylor and our music was composed by Casey Holford.

This has been Tilted, and I’m your host, Rachel Thomas.