When You’re The “Only” At Work; Enduring Isolation At The Top
Have you ever walked into the room and realized you were the only person that looked like you? Well, you’re not alone in that feeling. The concept of “onliness” in the executive c-suite and boardroom is by no means a new phenomenon but rather a long-established pillar of the systemic exclusion of women and people of color from these spaces.
In fact, despite the calls for both racial and gender parity in corporate America, a recent IBM study found that advancing women was not a top priority of 70% of global organizations that were surveyed. Another study revealed that just 12.5% of board directors make up individuals from underrepresented ethnic and racial groups, up from 10 percent in 2015.
Despite how frustrating this sluggish progress can be for women and other minorities there are steps we can take to understand what’s causing this issue and to impact change at an organizational level.
Being The “Only”
Where I felt being the “only” most acutely, personally and professionally, was when I worked for a large financial institution that was a sales driven organization. I was a senior-level executive and was responsible for driving $100M+ revenue by developing and selling new products and services for our clients that were different and incremental to our core services. As a primarily non-diverse, male sales culture at the time, and our clients mirrored our organization, real business was done on the golf course.
I grew up in a major city and had no knowledge or experience with country clubs and golf courses and that culture. Understanding the corporate culture I was part of, I took occasional lessons to try to play, but I had no access to courses or time to get out and practice and no natural talent for the game. But, understanding that this is where I need to develop relationships, I had to get out there with our clients and made sure I was included in these golf outings, wherever they took place. I was always matched up with clients who would ‘tolerate” a woman who had no golf skills. I would joke with them on the course, try to play and not interfere with the “men’s game”.
It was a time that I felt very diminished personally and professionally in a way I had never experienced before. In the end, I stopped signing up for rounds of golf and found other avenues to develop relationships where I could be confident and shine and successfully grow the business. And It worked.
Increasingly, there has been and more discussion from and surrounding women and people of color expressing the mistreatment they’ve endured from fellow colleagues and leadership and how this treatment has exacerbated feelings of isolation and imposter syndrome for them. Because of this treatment, many individuals who are “onlys” struggle with the idea of psychological safety in the workplace, or the confidence that they can feel comfortable speaking up, taking risks, and presenting new ideas without the fear of retaliation.
According to Modupe Akinola associate professor of management at Columbia Business School, “When you’re in the numerical minority or different from everybody else, then you’re going to feel pressure to self-censor. Just by nature of being one of the only makes an environment feel less psychologically safe.”
Lack of Support In The C-suite
For many women and minorities, there’s a consistent lack of support and representation. There may be one women or person of color in leadership or on a board, but that isn’t enough to affect institutional change. In a recent interview, Faith Young, Managing Director of Materials and Equipment Sourcing at Duke Energy recently shared “Early in my career, it was tough at times because I was the only woman in leadership in my market.
I was not only a woman but a woman of color… That meant making my commitments, applying my training and building relationships with my peers. It’s interesting because after a year or two of doing that, the man who gave me the hardest time apologized because he saw how well I was doing. He said, ‘I should have been nicer to you. I should have helped more.’”
Faith’s experience isn’t an anomaly, simply, women and people of color are more likely to be ignored and less likely to be given the respect afforded to them simply because of their gender or race.
Putting An End To The “Only”
Women and people of color shouldn’t be expected to represent the entirety of the racial and gender minorities that they come from. That’s why it’s necessary to appoint more than one woman or person of color and to consider adding more seats than replacing seats in the boardroom or in the c-suite. Less than 20% of private boards include two or more women and research indicates that creating a consistent minority composed of at least 30% of women and/or people of color makes it possible to transform the culture and operation of a business.
If you’re interested in continuing the conversation, Reach out to me directly! Leslie Dukker Doty, CEO, Women in the Boardroom.
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