Being the “only” can leave you feeling as an outsider when you just want to be in. Learn how to view your status as a strength, not a stigma.
By Dolly Chugh
In my first job out of college, at an investment bank, I spent a year as the only woman — and only person of color — on a seven-person team.
Being the only one had some benefits (I guess): I was usually noticed and remembered. I suspect that my ability to keep up — and even surpass the performance of my male peers — was at times unexpected, and thus viewed positively by some in the firm.
But it also meant there were few role models for me. It was harder for me to visualize being there long-term. I felt like an outlier.
Being the minority in a group — whether that be for your gender, your race, your sexual identity or something else — can be more than just lonely. It can mean that everything you do stands out, or that you are viewed as a “token” or an “other,” and that your successes (or failures for that matter) aren’t simply perceived to be one-offs but wholly representative of your identity. (Think of Indra Nooyi, the former PepsiCo chief executive who is an Indian-American woman, or Ursula Burns, the former Xerox chief executive, who is African-American. Their race and gender are often mentioned in the same breath as their names.)
Defensive driving teaches us how to anticipate and react to the poor driving of others. Similarly, we need to embrace defensive career-ing. While it is not our responsibility to fix others’ poor driving — or biases — we benefit from being able to avoid the consequences of it.
Seeing the Big Picture
A quick public service announcement to people who feel like “others”: Do not underestimate how important your presence is. Study after study shows that companies with greater diversity have better performance and are more productive. In her book, The Power of Onlyness, the business thinker Nilofer Merchant argues that we are in an unprecedented moment when a person’s “only” status — what she dubs their “onlyness” — can be a lever to move the world. “We lose far too many ideas, not because the idea is deemed unworthy; but the person bringing that idea who’s deemed unworthy of being heard,” she said. So remember, and don’t hesitate to remind others: Your organization is lucky to have you, and your ideas are worthy.
Find a Community
Being the only doesn’t mean you have to be alone. Here’s how to find a community.
- Identify allies. Odds are there are people out there rooting for you and willing to support you. To find them, pay attention to moments when a colleague might make a point of crediting a female colleague for her overlooked ideas or a white colleague challenges an insensitive joke. Or their behaviors may be more subtle, like when that colleague takes time to check in after a difficult meeting. Nurture relationships with these potential allies. Share your experiences — and frustrations — and make it clear that you welcome their support.
- Cultivate a sponsor. In her TED talk, the Morgan Stanley executive and author Carla Harris talks about “sponsors” as the people who will take your file into the room behind closed doors and argue on your behalf. Research suggests that sponsors who are different from you may be particularly helpful, because they expose you to different networks. If you’re in the minority of any group, sponsors can be essential in standing up for you and helping you navigate potential misperceptions people may have about you. Make it easy for them to advocate for you by keeping them in the loop about your successes and strengths.
- Find people like you. Research has found that for women, forming tight networks is important to finding jobs and getting promoted. How to find these people? Start by showing interest in informal happenings like lunch or book clubs. Look inside — and potentially outside — your workplace for affinity groups (at New York University, where I work, we have a “women’s faculty group”). If you can’t find one that already exists or works with your schedule, consider starting something. Someone out there is wishing they knew you.
Advocate for Yourself
There are a bevy of studies that have found that men are likely to receive more credit than women in a workplace context — even when they work in groups with other women. That means that those in the minority may have to work extra hard to be acknowledged for the work they do, and often that means speaking up to advocate for it or having others do so on your behalf.
- Track your successes…and broadcast them. Keep track of things that show your impact — whether that be congratulatory emails or a tally of the number of people you mentor. You never know when these lists will be useful — as a reminder of your value on a discouraging day. (Personally, I keep a “feel good” email folder that I turn to on bad days) or as data in a pay negotiation. Then practice broadcasting those wins. If it feels awkward to say “I was the top sales performer last month,” then practice saying it in the third person: “Dolly was the top sales performer last month.” Say it 10 times like you mean it. Now switch back to “I.”
- Be wary of office housework. Research shows that women are more likely to be asked to take on so-called “office housework” — the menial tasks that need to get done, but may not be recognized as “mission critical,” such as organizing office parties or serving on committees. Experiment with saying no to these tasks, or using the requests as an opportunity to trade off other less desirable tasks. If you feel you’re being asked too often, consider setting up a rotation so that everybody takes a turn. I happen to have a very effective “no club” with two of my female colleagues. We email each other when we are asked to do optional tasks and advise each other on what to decline and how to say no.
- Recognize bias. Stereotypes about women’s skills abound — from not being viewed as good “leaders” to assumptions that we are bad at math and science. Additionally, women must also navigate the seemingly endless double binds that play out in ways big and small: being viewed as “too aggressive” when they are assertive or too “soft” when they are nice. These stereotypes are often additionally tricky for women of color, who face stereotypes around both their race and gender. Avoiding these stereotypes will not always be possible — but knowing they exist is the first step toward being able to avoid them. Call them out if you feel up to it — and if you know how to do that with a sense of humor, even better. And be careful: Women hold unconscious gender biases, too, so watch your own blind spots.
Acknowledge the Emotional Troll
Tired? No surprise. Being the only in a group can mean being watched, scrutinized, stereotyped — or what I call the “exhaustion trifecta.” It can also mean that the burden to educate your peers on how to be “more inclusive” often falls to you, whether you wanted that responsibility or not.
- Focus on excellence, not perfection. The adage that you will need to be twice as good as everyone else may be true. Research shows that when you’re the “only one,” you are held to higher standards. That might explain why women often hold themselves to near-impossible standards — in other words: perfection. But that promise of perfection actually makes it more difficult for women to take risks or fail. Try to focus on being “excellent” — not perfect — and let yourself make mistakes. Think of a failure as a guide map for the future, not a stop sign.
- Practice self-care. Women are more likely than men to report feeling “very tired or exhausted” and to experience emotional exhaustion. When you are the target of bias, there are significant health effects. That’s where self-care comes in. Think about what you eat, how often you move, and how much you laugh. Stay connected to your friends and family. Lean on your faith or meditation practice or binge-worthy shows, whatever brings down the stress.