Too Many Women in Corporate America Are Still the Only Woman in the Room

A new report shows that a one-and-done approach to diversity makes workplaces isolating for underrepresented employees.

A black woman talking to two white male co-workers.
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In the fall of 1956, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School, she was one of just nine women in a class of more than 500 men. “You felt you were constantly on display. So if you were called on in class, you felt that if you didn’t perform well, you were failing—not just for yourself, but for all women. And [you] also had the uncomfortable feeling that you were being watched,” the Supreme Court justice later recalled.

Women now make up 57 percent of college graduates, about 50 percent of law students, and about 40 percent of business school students. Yet once they reach corporate America, many women still find themselves outnumbered. According to the new “Women in the Workplace” report by and McKinsey & Company that I co-authored, one in five women say they are often the only woman or one of the only women in the room at work. This experience is twice as common for women in senior-level roles or technical roles; about 40 percent of women in this group are “onlys.”

The report also found that being the only employee of your race and ethnicity or your sexual orientation is a reality for many. Forty-five percent of women of color and 37 percent of men of color are often the only or one of the only people of their race or ethnicity in the room at work. And the numbers are even higher for gay people: 76 percent of lesbians and 70 percent of gay men say they are onlys. For one-fourth of people working in corporate America, a typical day at work means being a lonely only.

Research over the past 40 years has shown that this experience is extremely difficult. In her 1977 groundbreaking ethnography of a Fortune 500 company she dubbed Indsco, Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote about what she called “tokenism.” Drawing on the experiences of 20 women in a 300-person sales force who were sprinkled across different offices, Kanter found that when women were working alone or nearly alone on teams dominated by men, they were viewed as representatives of their social group, as symbols rather than individuals. When this happened, negative dynamics ensued.

A direct consequence of tokenism is the heightened visibility that Ginsburg experienced in law school. Onlys often stand out in a crowd. Everything the token woman does or says is put under a microscope, creating performance pressures. And her success or failure often becomes a litmus test for what all women are capable of doing, significantly raising the stakes on her individual performance. When there are many women in a group, the variation among them helps counter generalizations about women. But when there is just one woman, she becomes a stand-in for all women. So token women can face greater expectations to conform to feminine stereotypes and greater pushback when they step outside those gendered lines.

When asked how it feels to be the only one in the room, women surveyed for the report most frequently said they feel under pressure to perform, left out, and on guard. They feel targeted by behaviors, actions, and statements that exclude, demean, or insult them. Also known as microaggressions, these acts can range from subtle slights like talking over someone to more explicit forms of hostility such as making derogatory remarks. They communicate negative messages about members of underrepresented groups—often that they are less competent and don’t belong. While the report found that 64 percent of women overall say they’ve experienced microaggressions, it’s even more common for onlys. More than 80 percent of female onlys report being on the receiving end of microaggressions at work. (Female onlys are also twice as likely to have been sexually harassed at some point in their careers.) An Asian female vice president interviewed for the report recounted just this kind of experience: “I was in the elevator and pressed the button for the executive office. Someone said to me, ‘Um, no, honey. That’s for the executive offices. The interns are going to this floor.’ ”

Back in the 1970s, when Kanter first outlined her theory of tokenism, she suggested that anyone who was an only —women, racial or ethnic minorities, or LGBTQ people—would experience these negative dynamics. But subsequent research has shown that it’s not just about numbers. When sociologist Christine Williams examined the experience of mostly white men working in professions dominated by women, such as nursing, she found that they benefited from their token status. They were often granted more authority and responsibility and were drawn into higher-paying specialties than their female counterparts. Instead of hitting a glass ceiling, the men rode up a “glass escalator,” Williams found. But sociologist Adia Harvey Wingfield found that black men in nursing were thought to be less skilled than female nurses. While the white male nurses were often mistaken for doctors, the black male nurses were often mistaken for orderlies or janitors.

This research shows that inequalities are woven into the very experience of tokenism, making it a positive experience for those with more power and a negative one for those with less. The report found that just 7 percent of men say that they are often the only or one of the only men in the room at work.  And when asked how this feels, they were most likely to say they feel “included.” In contrast, when a black woman is the only person of her race and ethnicity in the room at work, she is much more likely than other onlys to feel like everyone is watching her and that she is under pressure to perform.

For too long, many companies have approached diversity with a one-and-done mentality, only focusing on these issues until they’ve reached some minimum threshold of diversity (a few women and people of color), thinking that was sufficient to check off the diversity box. Such an approach doesn’t do much to move the needle on representation, and it makes it even harder for members of underrepresented groups who are hired. That 25 percent of employees are onlys highlights just how much work remains to be done to make corporate America look like the rest of the country. If scarcity engenders tokenism, then the marching orders for companies are to change the ratio and make the “only” experience rare. If companies get this right, fewer employees will feel like they live on “lonely islands,” and more will feel like they are integral and valued members of the team.