What is it like to be the only woman in the room?

imagesKate Lee, at the Medium, asked me to write for a new series “Letters to my Mother/Daughter”. Emily and I are doing one together.  Very cool idea.  In her email there was also a future topic to be covered….what is it like to be the only woman in the room?

I have been the only woman in the room more than a several times.  In the past few months it has happened more than a handful of times.  I am greeted with open arms but I wonder if I have changed the room at all.  As I have gotten older I find it to be less of a challenge to be heard but more of a responsibility to be the leader in the room.  Essentially to show that I know my shit.

There is something intimidating to most women sitting in a room full of men who supposedly know about everything.  The reality is that they don’t.  They might be more comfortable in those meetings because they are confident in those rooms.   What I have discovered over the years is just became they appear to be confident doesn’t mean that they know what’s going on.

I always sat at the table like everyone else but in the past I probably listened more than I spoke.  I learned a long time ago not to start my sentence in those meetings with “I think” but to jump in with my comments instead.  Be articulate, be bold and show pure confidence and no fear. You are in the meeting because you deserve to be there not because they asked a token woman.  If you can shift your thoughts to that it makes all the difference in the world.

For whatever reason, DNA, lessons from my parents, I never felt intimated in that environment.  I remember being in an executive session with all men and one of them came up with an absurd financial decision that would hurt the organization for years to come.  I was the only one in the room who said that it was not a wise move.  He was insanely condescending to me about how I did not understand what he was saying. He attempted to describe it again but slower like I would better understand it.  I fired back.  I got what he was saying but here is what I am saying that this thinking is irresponsible.  He was very ruffled and ended up resigning from that committee the next day.  Guess I made my point.

The other day I was in an investor meeting and I was the only woman in the room.  It actually made me chuckle.  I asked questions, I prodded, I understood what was being talked about.  I spoke more than anyone in the room.  Towards the end one of the men piped up and asked me…what exactly do you do?  It made me laugh to myself even more.

I have been the only woman in the room more than I care to be.  By setting my own agenda and being bold I hope to open the door for more women to come flooding into those meetings with me.  That would be the best thing that could happen.  More women change the conversation.

Comments (Archived):

  1. Ole Jakob Thorsen

    I am not a woman, but I think I know exactly where you come from (my own wife has been the only woman in the room throughout her career). I too think it would be great to have more women in the room, but we have to acknowledge that in a room with 9 men and 1 woman, more likely than not, the woman is extraordinary and the men include some that are extraordinary while the rest are fairly average. It happens one or two are outright stupid or obnoxious.The day when a normal meeting of 10 persons are likely to include 5 women and 5 men, it will become a certainty that idiots know no gender.

    1. Kirsten Lambertsen

      Mark Twain would love this 🙂

  2. lisa hickey

    Great post, Joanne.I have been the only woman in the room more times than I care to be. Unlike you, I also felt more intimidation than I care to admit—until just a few years ago. So I’d like to explain what made the “switch” in my mind, because I think it might be helpful to other women who do feel intimidated.– You said, “The other day I was in an investor meeting and I was the only woman in the room”. I have never been in an investor meeting where I was NOT the only women in the room. The only way to be confident is if the confidence comes from “surety”. That is, you really have a deep understanding of the numbers you are presenting and the way those numbers connect to the strategy you are implementing. I try never to present a spreadsheet if there is even a single number I do not understand. Likewise, I try never to present numbers if I don’t know how my actions could impact those numbers. Yes, I could be wrong, or I could be hampered by the market, or lack of resources or whatever — but if I can’t build an action plan around a set of data I probably have no business being in the room in the first place. And if I do know how to build and execute an action plan around data—well, that is surety. And the confidence I have is real.It’s not necessarily a “male” thing or a “female thing” — but I will say that there are societal pressures on women to “look good” as opposed to the constant pressure to “go deep into the analysis”, or even “build it, do it”. Personally, I love the pressure to do the latter and hate the pressure of the former. And so, I’ve finally learned to pressure myself to get better at the things I need to learn to succeed.– Even today, I find I have to edit out the words “I think”, “I feel”, “I believe” from emails, comments, or when speaking. My daughter (who has been both a VC and an entrepreneur) has said to me, “Never say the words “I feel” in a business meeting. People will think you base your insights on emotions rather than logic.”– One thing I have learned is — you don’t have to know more than everyone in the room. All you have to do is know different things than everyone there in order to command a room. Accept other people’s wisdom, and learn how to quickly incorporate what they say into what you already know. That becomes hugely valuable to everyone in a meeting and gives you leadership qualities even if you aren’t leading the meeting.

    1. Gotham Gal

      smart daughter!

    2. Erin

      Lisa, I love everything you’ve written, I just get conflicted about your and Joanne’s “feeling” lessons. On the one hand, I totally get that board rooms aren’t the place for feelings- to a large extent, neither is work-, but on the other hand, imitating men’s suppression of the feeling centre, I would argue, reinforces the imbalance that has led the business world to do all the damage it’s done. There’s setting conversations aside for a different context, and there’s being afraid of the heart centre. Two different things. I would advocate for a healthy balance of the three- the head, heart, and the gut with awareness of context. Being/acting confident and knowing your shit are super important, but are not antithetical to being able to speak from the heart. Just because many of the guys (and gals!) we work with don’t know how to access that space doesn’t mean we need to shut it down completely. As long as you’re still allowing yourself to feel- which I have no reason to believe you’re not- and it’s balanced out by thinking and listening to your instincts, you’re in a healthy place.

      1. Joe Cardillo

        Well said. I’m still pretty early in my career as an entrepreneur, but I believe that head, heart, and gut all matter. In my experience it’s a mistake to prioritize being tough and emotionless and it costs us in the long run in profits, too. A CEO’s product is the people that work for her / him.

      2. Kirsten Lambertsen

        This concept of not starting with “I think,” and “I feel,” can be conflated with “communicate like a man.”In fact, it has more to do with betraying your inner lack of confidence. When you’re about to start a sentence with “I think,” or “I feel,” ask yourself if it’s more like, “I know.” Subconsciously we leave ourselves an “out” by starting with “I think” and “I feel.” It’s a way of mitigating the risk of speaking.So, it’s not so much that, that’s “how men communicate.” It’s that men in general have been raised to not be afraid to speak and to have confidence in their ideas. I definitely want that advantage, too 🙂

        1. Erin

          Finding other ways to start a sentence besides “I think” or “I feel” is very wise, and maybe I shouldn’t have picked on that. I wanted to differentiate between internalizing men’s fear of their heart centre and in turn, suppressing it in yourself out of fear of rejection; versus owning it and just being aware of context. I agree wholeheartedly we also need to own what we know and speak from the gut.

          1. Kirsten Lambertsen

            And I share that :-). I don’t believe we need to impersonate men in order to succeed, especially their less healthy aspects!

          2. karen_e

            I have wondered too if sentences that start with “I feel” and “I think” and “I believe” are not very strong in meetings, so here is a remedy I’ve been working with. What often comes before any feeling is an observation based on the five senses, and these observations can be very valuable currency. For example, when reporting back to a group about an interaction with a potential biz dev partner, one could say, “I noticed Joe’s eyes were shifting all around during our meeting, so I decided to postpone our approach to his company until I could get more information.” At the behest of more than one boss, I did a deep dive into Emotional Intelligence last summer, and the best book I came across was Hendrie Weisinger’s “Emotional Intelligence at Work,” not to be confused with others with similar titles. It helps me work the muscles that identify where feelings come from in the first place.

          3. Erin

            EQ is so where it’s at- it’s a whole other level to operate on. And wow a review says the book is better than Daniel Goleman’s. That’s a high standard to surpass. If you’re into that, and especially if your bosses are, learn the Enneagram. It gives you a clear and personal map of the unconscious origin of your feelings. http://amzn.to/1Gryrkv .

    3. pixiedust8

      I could not agree more. I think, for me, confidence stems from a deep knowledge of my topic, and I do my best to educate myself. I think there are men (like a few at a company where I worked) who can speak with confidence even if they have NO IDEA what they are talking about. (There are certainly women like this, too, but in my experience, far fewer who are willing to “fake it til they make it”–a phrase I hate, btw.)One of these men used to constantly tell me that I couldn’t seem unsure or admit that I didn’t know something. That seems ridiculous to me, because sometimes, you just need more information. (This man’s “confidence” on topics caused systems to be built incorrectly, which causes so much more work and angst in the long run.)Love your last point! Everyone brings different talents to the table. In an ideal world, it’s about collaboration and everyone’s skills.

  3. meredithcollinzzz

    I think you hit the nail on the head – speak up, “show pure confidence and no fear” and be prepared for somebody to pounce on you, because, as much as I hate to admit it, certain types of men respond to women (especially those with differing views) with a whole lot more aggression than they would to a man with a differing view. If you expect strong push back and are prepared to match it, then they seem to back down. A lot like a bully on the playground! In the 90’s, I was one of the first and only women working as a union camera person in the very closed NY film industry. Most of the time, I was the only woman on set besides hair and makeup, and I was doing highly technical work which required the support of the grip and electric departments which are STILL pretty much only men. I NEEDED them to be on my side in order to be successful. Was an interesting dance, but I learned to play the game and it was an invaluable lesson that has translated to every vertical I have ventured into.

    1. Gotham Gal

      it is a game…for sure.

  4. Jenna Abdou

    Another great post, Joanne. Thanks so much for covering this topic & encouraging women to speak up & speak out. Always enjoy reading your perspective.

  5. Joe Cardillo

    As someone who gets built in advantages (white, male), I try to find rooms where I don’t fit and learn from them (it’s a thing you see lots of successful people talk about, but throwing money at something is not the same thing as understanding, having empathy, or acting in a deeply meaningful way). It’s not much but it does help me have perspective and better support a wide array of entrepreneurs, especially women. As Kevin Spacey I think said, if you get to or are at the top, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down.Elizabeth Kraus over at MergeLane wrote a good thing about being a model to / supporting women entrepreneurs last fall, too, if you haven’t run into it yet – http://blog.mergelane.com/2

    1. Gotham Gal

      Big fan of what Elizabeth is doing.

    2. awaldstein

      YupSupporting my financee building a business in the NY wellness space where it is mostly women entrepreneurs has been gratifying and a huge learning for me as a person.I”ve always been the boss, always the corner office, always the decision maker. Intentionally I’m the supporter here and there is a powerful and different way of doing business that I”m now part of that I learned by stepping back and supporting not controlling.

      1. Joe Cardillo

        It is a heck of a lesson – and as I think a few folks (probably including you & I) have said over at AVC, sometimes simply providing support / listening is a powerful action.

  6. Kirsten Lambertsen

    Great post. Amazes me that you still are subjected to this kind of nonsense.

    1. Erin

      It’s baffling.

      1. LE

        I think from Joannes post …Towards the end one of the men piped up and asked me…what exactly do you do? …it’s clear that the people there don’t know who she is or what she has done. As such the same exact thing would happen to a man if he didn’t act and/or look distinguished in some way and was judged on appearance only. A man not fitting the part (where nobody knows who he is) might not exactly get the benefit of the doubt either at least until that man (or woman) opens their mouth.I remember as a college student sitting on a plane next to this guy:http://www.cozen.com/people…He was finely dressed, had a monogrammed shirt, and pulled out some legal briefs that he was working on. I remember thinking at the time (circa 1980) “this is an impressive guy”. Had he been dressed differently and not doing legal work I would not have thought anything at all about him (unless we had a conversation that is) and not tried to start a conversation.On a similar note I told the story the other day on AVC.com about my customer Azie Taylor Morton (a black woman who was Treasury Secretary):http://avc.com/2015/07/4000…Here it is out of context:One of my customers in the 80’s was a black woman, Azie Taylor Morton [3] who had signed currency when she was treasury secretary. When I first met her all I saw was a black woman and this was the 80’s. So what do you think that I thought? But she definitely seemed to be different and when I saw her signature on a work order I thought “hmm I’ve seen that before”. Then I looked on some currency and there was the same signature! It was the same woman! (She had been doing some work for Dr. J the basketball player iirc). So yes I had a bias (how many black women did I meet at the time that had achieved anything? 0) but what she said and how she acted clued me in that she was different. (Dr. J I would notice right away, right?).[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wi

  7. Lauren Moores

    Resonates completely. Great post and advice for our daughters.

  8. James Hare

    Fascinating post. Thank you. Love this, no truer words…: “just became they appear to be confident doesn’t mean that they know what’s going on.”Your remarks have given me much to consider since:a) my wife and I often discuss and joke about this topic; not only does she constantly find herself the only women in the room, but the other execs are typically several decades older.b) The majority of her interactions are in Asia, which adds more complexity to what behavior is expected and/or productive.c) I tend to view this issue through the lens of a career where it would have been abnormal not to be the only black guy, or American in the room.Which is why I find it particularly fascinating that there may be words, like “feel” or “think” that should be avoided. It’s honestly something that has never come up, and that I’ve never noticed before. I’m now very curious to pay closer attention and measure how often I hear such phrases, since I would have bet they are words often uttered by even the most overbearing, confident and analytical of my peers. But maybe I’m wrong.

    1. Gotham Gal

      It will be a good sociological experiment.The Asian piece definitely adds more complexity to the room.

  9. Mariah Lichtenstern

    Gotham Gal be like…

  10. Valeria Magoni

    Great post, Joanne! You hit the nail on the head!

  11. Casey Ann

    Great post Joanne! As a young female entrepreneur, I am in a meeting with only men, 90% of the time. Post like these make me feel empowered and encouraged to learn from my experiences and grow. *be confident * be strong * be unforgiving

    1. Gotham Gal

      Go for it!!

  12. LE

    People come into social situations (and business situations) with all sorts of biases and it happens to men as well as woman. (Men are judged by other men just like woman are judged by other women that’s obvious.)I am often the only man at some particular meetings dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. I wore jeans and a down vest when I landed my first big account in business when the men worked for Xerox and were wearing suits. I used my casual dress to my advantage I didn’t try to compete with “the suits” and the corporate types.Recently, I met somebody that I had spoken to over the phone and the first thing that he said was “wait are you L_____ the person that I spoke to over the phone???”. I’ve had police and firemen drive into the office complex that I own several units at and almost totally ignore me. When they find out that I am an owner (and see the car that I drive – it’s nice) there entire tune changes.My point is that while being a woman is an obvious bias point don’t think that in some ways men who don’t fit a particular role or look (not every place is Brooklyn or Silicon Valley) don’t experience this as well. I remember in my first business a man walking in that I thought was literally a bag man (had a plastic bag over his body it was raining). He turned out to be a good customer from a non profit that we did business with. That didn’t make me less likely to “jump to conclusions” about people based on how they dressed either.My point is you can get by much of this by just opening your mouth and sounding intelligent even if you are disadvantaged at the start by how you appear. [1] That is what I always found to be the case. And actually I have found it to be a great benefit because people tend to underestimate you and to be more impressed than if they were expecting something in the first place.[1] There was an older woman (might have been 75 years old) that was at a recent condo meeting (where we are looking for new board members). My first thought was “old lady”. After I heard her speak a bit I was really impressed with her. At the end of the meeting I spoke up and nominated her to run for a board seat (she decline had some medical issues that she needed to clear up). Had she not said anything (part of your point) I would have gone on thinking “old lady”. I don’t apologize for this either. Would have thought the same thing with a man who didn’t open his mouth as well.

  13. Rathna Sharad

    Resonates with me — always been the only woman in most rooms. I think confidence that you deserve to be there makes all the difference.