One is the loneliest number

How costly is the experience of many women being the only female on their teams

January 2019 One is the loneliest number Put an end to the costly isolation experienced by many women by clustering them on teams and improving the promotion process. Chances are, most people have experienced an “only” moment. Ours included being the only Jewish kid in the class as The Merchant of Venice was being discussed and plans for Christmas reviewed, and being the only woman and person of color in a room full of older men and about to tell the group that they needed to shift their strategy. Kevin Sneader is All of these experiences brought with them anxiety, pressure, and a sense the global managing of being on the spot: if we said or did the wrong thing, stereotypes would partner of McKinsey & Company and is get reinforced or prejudices confirmed. Other people, we recognize, based in McKinsey’s experience far worse. Hong Kong office. For women, being an “only” in the workplace is endemic. Twenty percent of the women in our latest Women in the Workplace report said they were commonly the only person of their gender in the room or one of very few. The figure is far higher in some sectors such as technology and engineering. For women of color, that number rose to 45 percent. For men, it was just 7 percent. Lareina Yee is a These statistics, from a study of 64,000 employees and 279 companies senior partner in in North America, are a sobering gauge of how frustratingly slow progress the San Francisco is toward gender equality in most companies. In the past five years, the office and serves proportion of white-collar women joining companies has risen steadily as McKinsey’s to reach near parity with men. But female representation still diminishes chief inclusion and diversity officer. along the corporate pipeline, and in the C-suite it is stuck at one in five. The more encouraging news is that those same statistics point to a potentially forceful way to break through: say no to “onliness.” We know women are more likely to experience discrimination in the workplace than men. But the study shows the odds are higher still when women find themselves alone in a group of men (exhibit). They are far more likely than others to have their judgment questioned than women working in a more balanced environment (49 percent versus 32 percent), to be mistaken for someone more junior (35 percent versus 15 percent), and to be subjected to unprofessional and demeaning remarks (24 percent versus 14 percent). If they are treated like this, no wonder they get overlooked for promotion.

Banishing onliness does not replace the goal of gender parity in the C-suite nor the need for a more complex strategy to achieve it. But our research suggests it will diminish some of the barriers that hold women back. Importantly, it is also a relatively simple goal toward which visible progress can start today with a few practical measures, such as the following: • Recognize that one is not enough. Forty-five percent of all men and 28 percent of women in the survey reported that if one in ten leaders is a woman, that means women are relatively well represented. These beliefs clash with the experiences of the onlys—suggesting how important it is to shift those perceptions. Two women is the bare minimum; better yet, many more. • Build critical mass instead of spreading women leaders too thinly. Leadership teams, project teams, agile squads, and many other groupings of people are being formed all the time. Our research strongly suggests that it is preferable to assemble teams comprising several women rather than try to place one woman on every team. A higher concentration of women in some groups could, in the beginning, strip others of any women at all. This is far from ideal, but it does at least signal the aspiration and underscore the continued need to boost the number of women across the organization. QPrint 2019 One is the lonliest number Exhibit 1 of 1 Exhibit Women are more likely to experience discrimination in the workplace than men, but being the only woman is an even worse experience. Employees who have experienced microaggressions during the normal course of business, % Œomen Only woman or only Woman among other women €en man in office or man among other men in office †eeding to provide more evidence of your competence Š1 20 2‹ 13 than others do ƒaving your „udgment …uestioned ‹ 30 32 26 in your area of expertise ‡eing addressed in a lessˆ 3Š 1 2‹ 16 thanˆprofessional way ‡eing mista‰en for someone 3Š 12 1Š  more „unior ƒearing demeaning remar‰s about 2‹ 13 1‹  you or people li‰e you ource 201 eann ­rg and €c‚insey Women in the Workplace study 2

• R eview processes for making promotions and filling vacancies. If the proportion of women at entry level has risen and if, as our research consistently indicates, women leave their companies at the same rate as men, then there must be a growing proportion of experienced women building up in the pipeline. Find them, help them advance, and enlist them in the effort to overcome onliness. • U se the CEO transition period. In separate research, our McKinsey colleagues found that more than two-thirds of chief executives replace at least half of the members of their top teams within two years of taking office. These moments of change represent a great opportunity to address the “only” problem, but too often it becomes an opportunity forgone: the proportion of women in management in the senior teams that new CEOs reshuffled increased by only two percentage points to 14 percent. A word of caution: We do not want to suggest women onlys never succeed. On the contrary, plenty do. And plenty feel supported in their work and ambition. That said, the research shows they are more likely to contemplate leaving their jobs (26 percent) than other women (17 percent) and employees overall (19 percent). And our research reveals how to bring the “only” population into line with others in terms of job satisfaction and intent to leave. Sponsors who give them stretch assignments, highlight their good work to others, and advocate on their behalf for new opportunities move the needle most. Middle managers are naturally positioned to be the first line of change. This speaks to the importance of making a compelling case for gender diversity that all managers hear and investing in more employee training to overcome the biased views—sometimes held by women as well as men—that keep women back. Both have emerged as constant themes in our research over the years. We recognize that achieving gender parity in the workplace depends on a targeted set of actions that will differ by industry and company and that companies worldwide are making considerable efforts to change the status quo. But to inject some adrenaline into all those efforts, why not build strength in numbers? This article originally appeared in the October 23, 2018, print edition of the Wall Street Journal as “Let’s say no to ‘onliness.’ The article also appeared on the Wall Street Journal’s website,, under the title, “How to overcome the isolation of women in the workplace.” Copyright © 2019 McKinsey & Company. All rights reserved. 3

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