Stop Being Proud of Being the Only Woman in the Room

Above photograph by Hopper Stone—SMPS/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

Let’s not beat around the bush. The title says it all. I realize this may make you feel uncomfortable or even annoy you.  Or you might cheer it on. No matter what your reaction is, I need to get it off my chest and say it:

Ladies, we need to stop being proud of being the only woman in the room.

The Epiphany

A couple of months ago, I was invited to participate in a listening tour meeting with our Corporate Vice President. Upon entering the room, it struck me that the meeting was entirely made up of women.  It felt amazing to be surrounded by a group of women from diverse backgrounds and specialties. It was also the first time I was in a meeting with all women in my 4+ years at Microsoft.

But then something else struck me. As the women in the room shared their background, I heard many repeat the same phrase: “I don’t notice anymore that I am the only woman in the room”.  Said with a smile or a laugh, we all nodded our heads. There was even a shade of pride for some women in saying this. But I get it since that used to be me. After I left the meeting this axiom and the ease in which everyone said it kept repeating in my head and left me with the question: why are we proud of this?

I used to proudly regurgitate this phrase to my colleagues and friends throughout my career. I used to feel a certain level of accomplishment with it because it meant that I had persevered through a male-dominated industry to succeed and that I had become “one of the boys”. In other words, it created what I now see as a misperception that I was “stronger” than other women who couldn’t make it. The reality is  not that those women were not strong enough, but rather that no one made space for them. We have normalized being proud of being the only woman to such a degree that we view it as empowering, when it in fact does the exact opposite.

Turning a Blind Eye

But these types of justifications and excuses are merely defense mechanisms that come in the form of deflecting and laughing it off to try to prove to others that isolation doesn’t affect us and, most importantly, to survive in our careers. And oftentimes, the best way to survive is to assimilate. But assimilation does nothing to change a situation. “I don’t notice anymore that I am the only woman in the room” is essentially synonymous with “I don’t notice the gender gap anymore”. And if you don’t notice something, you’re not going to fix it. There is also level of privilege that comes along with this:

“I worked hard to get here, shouldn’t I enjoy my success?”

Yes, enjoy it.

“If someone else didn’t get here, doesn’t that mean they didn’t work as hard?”

No, for many it means the opportunity to get there was systematically shut down.

While we have been blending in and accepting, we have forgone the benefits of standing out and making sure there are more like us.

STEMming from the past

Women hold less than 20% of US tech jobs, yet we make up over half of the workforce in the US. However, fields like computer science used to be considered a natural fit for women in the 1960’s. Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper are pioneers in computer programming which shatters the notion that men are inherently better at STEM jobs. We have seen the movie Hidden Figures which outlined the unique role women, especially women of color, played as human computers and then computer programmers to help send humankind to the moon. But as we all know, the number of women in STEM has been plummeting since the 1980’s. This is driven by multiple factors including blatant sexism, lack of female mentors, lack of education initiatives, and active discouragement of girls from STEM. It’s a “brotopia” and we are living in it. The numbers get even worse if you are a female minority. Computer science majors numbered over 30,000 for white men in 2016. That number drops to barely over 1000 for Hispanic women, Asian women and African American women. And yet, more women earn college degrees than men. But pushing back against an entire industry and society that has systematically tried to box women in – intentionally or not - is no easy feat.

A brighter future

The good news is that there is more focus on getting women into tech and computer science today. From toys that teach young girls the building blocks of engineering, to organizations making it their mission to teach girls to code, to large companies having entire teams and divisions to focus on diversity and inclusion, we’re making steps in the right direction. There is a spotlight that we need to capitalize on. It’s been documented over and over that more women in tech drives greater diversity in thought, increases revenue, and propels innovation. Women are the largest economic workforce in the world and there is no reason why the next Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, or Jeff Bezos shouldn’t have a vagina. There is no argument out there that can hold up against the benefits of expanding women in the tech and computer science fields.

No more excuses

So let’s bring this all back together. We are part of the problem. Every time we dismiss the fact that we are the only woman in the room instead of questioning it, we are giving in.  We need more women in tech in order to get more women in tech. We need to be visible. The next time you are the only woman in the room don’t accept it, ask why and make it your mission that you won’t be the next time. Be proud when there are two of us, three of us, an entire room of us. Let’s ask more questions and make up less excuses that allow us to accept that there is only room for one. There’s room for us all.