Accelerating the Advancement of Women Leaders 

ONE IS THE LONELIEST NUMBER

July 2, 2019

Jennifer Eubanks, Managing Partner at Longhorn Steakhouse

Addressing the stress of the “only”  
While you might be celebrated for being the only woman at your level, in a male-dominated field or in a testosterone-heavy department, research shows being the only woman in the room often negatively impacts career and job satisfaction. Attentive managers and companies can change that dynamic.

McKinsey & Company finds that ‘onlys’ are 25% more likely to experience microaggressions, more likely to have their abilities challenged and 1.5 times more likely to consider leaving their jobs. Lone women (similar to being the only LGBTA person or person of color) report feeling “on guard,” “closely watched” and “under pressure.” They are twice as likely to report experiencing sexual harassment.
 
Exhausted and lonely
‘Onlys’ often feel torn between being expected to serve as the lone voice of their group and wanting to disappear into the whole. That sense of isolation can be draining as mental and emotional resources are diverted to striving to fit in or to representing your group well. The challenge is even greater for women of color who often find themselves the sole representative of both their race and gender.
 
“In almost every role in my corporate career and on almost every organizational team, I have been the only woman of color and many times the only woman,” explains Libby Saylor Wright, a former Food Industry executive who is now COO for WFF. “After almost 20 years in business, I still found myself in a recent role as the only person of color on a cross-functional leadership team of more than two dozen leaders.”
 
It was often the subtle things that made the atmosphere unsettling. For example, choosing not to go along to the bar with her male colleagues after work dinners increased feelings of isolation yet going meant subjecting herself to uncomfortable situations.
 
Jennifer Eubanks, now Managing Partner with Longhorn Steakhouse, knows the feeling from earlier career positions.  “When I began my career as a restaurant general manager with another company, I faced a lot of sexual harassment by way of inuendo and pass-by touches from the organization leadership. It made me feel very uncomfortable.” 
 
At Longhorn and with the Darden family of restaurants, she has found a champion for women and zero tolerance for that type of behavior. “Where I once felt like I had no voice, I now feel empowered,” Eubanks said. 
 
Saylor Wright found respite from the mental and emotional drain of being an ‘only’ when her boss was a man of color. “He used his experiences to understand my circumstances,” she explains. “While I was still an ‘only,’ I was encouraged to bring my experience, unique perspectives and full leadership to the situation.” Managers and Company leaders can be highly effective in helping ‘only’ women feel less alone and more empowered by recognizing the realities of the situation, offering support and providing space for her voice and views to be included.

Make it rare
McKinsey and others offer tips on how to make the ‘only’ experience less common.
  • Hire and promote women in cohorts
  • Support managers in thinking through daily team interactions to create opportunities for women to work together
  • Talk about microagressions directly and as they happen to build a less biased culture
  • Offer networking groups where women can connect with others for support and community
  • Cluster women on teams while being careful to offer opportunities in a broad range of functional areas and not simply in those traditionally dominated by women
 Case study from campus
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of its Women in Engineering Program (the nation’s first), Purdue University’s College of Engineering uses specialized software to intentionally create engineering teams that don’t isolate women or other under-represented groups.
 
“Through the years, our faculty observed that ‘only’ women sometimes had difficulty getting their ideas heard, weren’t fully recognized as an equal in terms of work assignments, were relegated to note taker or organizer and given fewer chances to be the designer or coder,” explains Beth Holloway, Ph.D., Director of Purdue’s Women in Engineering Program.
 
Holloway sees an increasing number of companies that recruit her students providing women with affinity groups and striving to increase gender diversity. “As a problem increases in complexity, the likelihood of finding a solution increases as the diversity of the group increases,” she says.
 
That’s reason enough to recruit more women and connect them with female peers. 


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