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I was on “Only”; what it feels like and what I learned.

It was a Friday, and there were 25 Managing Directors gathered in a hotel conference room to discuss firm priorities for 2017.  Also, I was the only female. Sure, everyone in the room had a lot professionally in common – top-tier consulting firm experience, top business school credentials, and impressive client lists.  The conversation started fairly innocuous, discussing our financial targets for the year. So then the conversation turned to culture. Our founder was at the whiteboard and asked us to start tossing out cultural goals we wanted to focus our energies against.  My colleagues called out team orientation, entrepreneurial mindset, apprenticeship model, increased speed of career progression…all good topics. And then I blurted out “diversity.” Without skipping a beat, the MD wrote diversity in the ‘parking lot’ – a place to log issues we would discuss at a later date – or would fall off the radar in my experience.  I sat there awkwardly and counted the minutes until lunch. This wasn’t subtle micro bias – it was outright disregard. At that moment, I had never felt so alone.

When I joined the firm, I asked about the lack of female leadership.  Given it was a small firm, the responses ran the gamut from telling me about women who had previously been there to ask me how I could help advance the women currently at the firm.  While there were early warning signs, I was genuinely impressed with the people I met with, and I thought I knew what I was getting into. I had always worked in male-dominated environments and sectors.  I had encountered many of the stereotypical scenarios and microaggressions – being asked to get coffee, being talked over, clients assuming I was more junior than I was. And I had adapted. I had been one of a few female leaders (but never the only) in prior firms, and I thought it would be more of the same. Looking back, I radically under-estimated the challenge in being “the Only.”

McKinsey and recently released their annual study on Women in the Workforce.   Among other topics, the study looks at ‘Only’s.’ The study sites one in five women experience being an ‘Only’ at work – and this number doubles for women in senior roles.  The study goes on to state that ‘Only’s’ are more likely to be subject to microaggressions, have their competency called into question, be subject to demeaning remarks and feel uncomfortable discussing personal lives in the workplace.  The study highlights the critical challenge of visibility. When you are an ‘Only,’ you stand out, are subject to more scrutiny and therefore higher standards. Ultimately, ‘Only’s’ have significantly lower job satisfaction.

I can tell you without a doubt; these are all realities.  While my commercial contributions were on par with my colleagues, I was subject to more scrutiny when it came to negotiations and client handling.  More often than not, my judgments were ‘validated’ by my male colleagues, and that somehow made them more credible. My expertise was valued, but I was often put “in a box” as being an expert on narrow content topics (often gender influenced) vs. general business expertise.  While I was always brought in on engagements or pitches where there would be another female executive decision maker, I was often excluded from meetings (or not thought of) that would have naturally fit with my experience.

I tried to mitigate my experience by deploying some of the tactics the McKinsey/ LeanIn study refers to – staffing my teams with women, actively mentoring junior women and asking issue raising questions during performance reviews.  These efforts worked in some cases, but the reality was stark. Even when empowering and promoting junior women, in the back of my mind I was always harboring the painful thought that while I wanted to empower these women vocally, I also wanted to blend in with my male co-workers.

Fundamentally, it was merely a very lonely environment that did a job on my self-confidence for some time.  I felt an intense need to prove myself, which led to a lack of self-assurance. Whereas I had always trusted my instincts, I increasingly questioned them. I became hyper-aware of how I was perceived, contributed less to general conversations and became nervous about bringing up controversial topics.

Ultimately, I was one of the dissatisfied ‘Only’s’ that did leave the firm for greener pastures (ironically, in tech).  There is only so much you can do in an environment that is less than 10% women. That said, the entire experience strengthened my resolve to use my voice and empower women.  Before being an ‘Only,’ I was always formally involved in recruiting, mentoring and providing feedback and quite frankly thought I did a pretty good job of advocating for my teams and mentees. Following the experience, heightened awareness has caused me to rethink my tactics and actions to make a stronger difference in eliminating bias and empowering women on my teams. I have also changed how I contribute to formal programs like recruiting, performance reviews, mentoring and advocacy.  
Below is a starter list of my before and after behaviors.  I encourage you to think of your own and share. What will you do differently in the future?