I Was The Only Woman


The fact is I never thought of women’s issues in the workplace because I have never faced overt discrimination at work. No one has ever made terrible comments to me, sexually harassed me or any of the other actions you think of as discrimination.

Do I know that it happens? Have I heard stories? Absolutely.

Honestly, I just thought that kind of behavior was a relic of the past and if it occurred it was an exception. Therefore I never really thought of gender issues at work until I was the only woman in the room….

After a day of off-site, high-level meetings, dinner was served and I surveyed my table, only to realize that I was the only woman at the table. Then I looked around the entire room and realized I was the only woman in the entire room. There were probably 50 people in that room and I was the only woman. And the only woman in the room was from HR, how stereotypical is that?!

And that’s when I started to think about gender at work. Maybe being in HR gave me a false impression about the number of women in leadership or maybe I was just delusional and out of touch?

So I did what I always do when I’m confused. I read. A lot. I started with Lean In and branched out to other books about women in the workplace (by the way What Works for Women at Work is a great book). I learned that while overt harassment and discrimination are on the decline, unconscious bias against women is still present in the workplace in subtle ways.

I am still learning but one thing is very clear to me: with women controlling $5 TRILLION of spending, our organizations need to step it up. We need to challenge ourselves to start recognizing unconscious bias at work. It starts with thinking about the language we use and the assumptions we make:

Do you refer to women as “girls”? Such as “The “girls” answer the phones.”

Have you heard criticism of a woman around “watching their tone”?

Are you being “helpful and understanding” when you don’t offer a new mother a promotion or key project?  

Does the “team” happy hour exclude women because it really takes place at a strip club?

Sure, my examples above could be completely innocuous on the surface:

Maybe “the girls” answering the phone are all teenagers working a summer job.  

Maybe the woman who needs to “tone it down” really does need to stop yelling at her team.

Maybe a new mother really doesn’t want to take on an ERP project that will require long nights and weekends.  

Maybe the “team” happy hour is just mistitled. It could be just a bunch of friends hanging out, not talking business.

The first step is being aware of the language we use and assumptions we make:  

Give people the opportunity to speak up and say “Yes I want that project” or “No I can’t take that on right now.”  

Think about how patronizing it sounds to call a group of adult women“ girls.”

Think about the expectations of your office. Expectations. Not policies. Because yes, you may have a flexible workplace policy but if no one takes advantage of it, you might as well not even have that policy.  

Non-family friendly workplace expectations, the language we use and excluding women have far greater implications than hurt feelings or bruised egos:  

The language we use can inspire people or it can tear them down by belittling their contributions.

Excluding certain people from the team happy hour means a lack of critical face-to-face social time with managers and teammates, not to mention the choice of “venue” is offensive.   

Workplace expectations from 1950 that assume there is a stay-at-home spouse, result in a lack of women and men willing to take on leadership positions.  

I’m not asking any of you to become the head of a Lean In circle or to join NOW. I’m not suggesting that every non-invite to a happy hour is discrimination but I am asking you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Take a look at your organization from a different perspective. As Dave Ryan, eloquently put it last week on PIC, you can be part of the solution.



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