Have you ever found yourself the only person of your gender or ethnicity at a gathering, in a conference room or on a panel? A lot has been written about such situations, particularly about how problematic it is when one token woman is expected to represent the interests and experiences of all women. I agree that such minimal representation is insufficient, especially given that women comprise half the world's population and are earning degrees and entering the workforce at a faster pace than men. Nevertheless, as our world slowly works toward true equity, I believe it's essential to learn strategies that leave us feeling empowered, no matter what circumstances we find ourselves in. So, if you imagine you'd clam up being the only woman in the room—or if you know from past experience that you would—then I invite you to try getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. It's how I try to live every aspect of my life, whether I'm sitting on a panel or traveling the world.
I have an insatiable curiosity about other people and cultures. There is no other way to satisfy that craving for stimulation and surprise than spending time in a new country. The more extreme and different the culture is from what I am familiar with, the more exciting it is to me. I may feel uneasy at times, but I enjoy the challenge of being pushed outside my comfort zone. Maybe my sense of wonder about the world comes from the nomadic way that I grew up—my family often moved due to my mother's job. Whatever the reason, I am proud of this way of being and of how I continue to grow and excel because of these experiences.
Take for instance my trip alone to Russia a few years ago. I don’t speak Russian and have only a rudimentary understanding of the culture. Despite that, I was filled with high hopes about the possibilities for my trip, and the experience did not let me down. Even with a significant language barrier, and even though I stuck out as an ethnic minority in a sea of ethnic majority, the kindness the Russians showed and their sense of wonder about who I am were extraordinary.
One afternoon in Moscow, it had been raining for hours. I took shelter by the gold water fountain in Gum, a shopping mall on Red Square. While I sat and watched newly wedded couples take photos and young parents play with their children, person after person cozied up by my side to take selfies sitting next to me. One family was so bold that they sat their child on my lap without even attempting to communicate first. All the while, I was smiling, both inside and outside, reveling in the thought that fundamentally, human beings just want to connect. On another occasion, I was walking the grounds of Peter the Great’s Summer Palace and Gardens in St. Petersburg. There was a wedding party taking photos, and when one of the groomsmen saw me, he tore away and charged towards me. Without warning, he scooped me up in his arms like a groom carrying his bride over the threshold on their wedding night. He spun around, leaving us both giddy and laughing. This exchange reminded me that regardless of our differences, human beings have more in common than we often realize.
Such experiences are wonderful and humbling, and they offer many lessons. I become a better communicator when I am forced to grapple with language barriers. I learn to connect with others who are strikingly different from me when I place myself in a foreign culture and embrace the cultural differences rather than shying away from them. And as a result, I leave with an indelible positive impression that emboldens me to keep exploring. In my career, I bring this same curiosity and confidence to each new role. Often, I’m the only woman in a meeting, the only one who has a foreign accent, or the only one who is Black. While being in the minority has never bothered me, I understand why such situations are uncomfortable for many, especially for women who find themselves alone in a group of men. While conducting interviews for my book on #remarkablewomen in the venture capital, start-up and technology worlds, I asked numerous women to share strategies they've developed in order not just to cope but to thrive, even when they are in the minority.
Aileen Casanave is an accomplished tech attorney, business executive, teacher and board member of several nonprofit organizations in Silicon Valley. Early in her career at a major defense contractor, she found herself on a team that was composed of senior legal executives, all men, and one other woman. Her female colleague traveled often, leaving Aileen to be the only woman at their staff meetings on Mondays. She saw these as opportunities to learn by listening attentively, observing closely, and modeling their behavior. For instance, when they sat forward, she did too. When they sat back, she did as well. When they argued with each other and then invited each other to lunch, she argued with them and then said, “Let's go to lunch, John." She credits these experiences with the development of her emotional quotient (EQ). But there was one particular pattern of behavior Aileen observed that she could not model.
While in the midst of a deep discussion on a significant matter, someone would request a break. All the men would visit a nearby restroom. However, just like in the movie "Hidden Figures" where the character Katherine G. Johnson has to run across campus just to go to the bathroom, Aileen had a long walk to the one restroom that had been modified for women. Upon her return, a decision would’ve been made on the topic they were discussing before the break because the men had continued the conversation while they were in the men's room.
Feeling excluded, when the next opportunity presented itself, Aileen decided that she was going to follow them. As they walked towards the restroom, she kept talking to ensure they knew she was coming all the way in. "If you are going to continue the staff meeting in the restroom, I'm going to join you because it is a staff meeting that you're holding in there,” she said. Assuming she was joking, they quipped that they were just talking about baseball. Only making it to the door and without needing to enter, Aileen made it clear she knew that wasn’t the case. The men got the message and stopped discussing business when she wasn’t present. From that moment forward, when it was time for a restroom break, the men would jokingly ask if she was coming.
Aileen got comfortable with being the only woman in their all-male staff meetings, but until she took action, her voice was still being excluded at the most crucial moments, which placed her at a disadvantage. If you find yourself in a similar scenario, take a page from Aileen's playbook and turn the situation on its head, changing an obstacle into an advantage.
Another woman I interviewed, Zora Senat, agreed. Zora is a successful executive who is currently working on her new start-up while completing her MBA in Chicago. As an African-American woman Zora, has faced several situations where she was the only minority in the room. Often, she also has the experience of being undermined and disrespected, seemingly because she’s a woman and, particularly, because of her young age. But while these situations make her uncomfortable at times, she sees and uses them as opportunities to excel. For instance, to deal with the issue of being young, when she has to meet with a team who is much older than she is, Zora over-prepares. She asserts that “Customer satisfaction equals perception minus expectation.” In other words, when a client's expectations are low, once you deliver quality results, their satisfaction and their perception of your value will be higher than if expectations had been really high to begin with. What we can learn from Aileen and Zora and from my story is that if we embrace uncomfortable situations as opportunities for growth, we can't help but learn and advance as a result.
There are signs everywhere—from stories being told in various news media to studies being published by credible researchers—that women's power and talent are underutilized across numerous industries and enterprises. There is an upside to this situation: it means there are unlimited opportunities waiting to be seized by bold women who are willing to push the envelope a little. To the many women who are uncomfortable being in the minority, I recommend finding coping strategies that will help you get comfortable. From the many interviews I've conducted, here are a few simple but effective ideas that you can add to your list of strategies:
- Create your own cabinet. The women I interviewed are not alone in having a story; it's likely that other women in your close network have had similar experiences. Share your stories and learn from one another.
- Assume good intent and use the opportunity to raise awareness. In Aileen’s case, the men at the defense contractor hadn't realized that their behavior was excluding her. Once Aileen pointed out what was happening and figured out a solution, the men could no longer operate under their old assumptions and routines—they had to incorporate her into the conversation.
- Ask one of the men in the group to be an ally. If you have a trusted relationship with one of the men, he could call out behaviors that exclude you, introduce you to others and ensure your voice gets heard.
- Own your power. About 70% of the women I interviewed emphasized the importance of being prepared and staying confident in the knowledge that you are an expert in your field. For example, Ana Haghgooie, a venture capitalist in Chicago, says that when she walks into a meeting, she takes heart knowing she’s the one with the money and the ability to make good decisions about how it should be invested.
- Be a champion for change. Using your circumstances, position and power to your advantage, take action with the intent to bring about change. Point out and speak to the individuals who have the ability to get more women represented.
Of course, men can also do their parts to make sure women's voices are heard. If you are one of several men at a gathering with only one woman, keep in mind that she's there for good reason: because she's an expert in her area. You can make the first move by introducing yourself or inviting her point of view. You'll be helping to ensure she doesn't just have a place at the table, but also a voice in the conversation.
Meanwhile, for those of us who are women, it seems we can approach these minority moments in one of two ways—we can play the shrinking violet or we can seize the opportunity to learn, to influence, and to shine. So, try getting comfortable with discomfort. The unnerving moments are temporary, but the benefits will be long-lasting, each building on the last to fuel your confidence and propel you forward.