The Only (fill in blank)
The only person of color. The only female. The only homosexual. The only person without an engineering degree. The only (fill in the blank). A woman recently asked me, “How can I be seen as capable/valuable when I’m the youngest and only woman in the room?”. It’s a great question. It’s a tough question, but it needs to be addressed. Why? Because it can be so lonely in a room full of people when you feel like such an outsider.
They hear you but don’t listen. They brush over your ideas and then declare similar ideas minutes later. You are expected to be “on” at all times. Every action, every emotion, every deliverable is heavily scrutinized. One wrong move and your whole “group” is stereotyped as too emotional or incompetent or (fill in the blank). It is exhausting. When they say, “It takes a village.”, they never use it in the context of getting through the workday. But it does. It takes the support and encouragement of others to succeed, to get to the top and be able to pull others up with you (as opposed to pushing them away from you).
As I reminisce of the times where I felt invaluable, as if I didn’t have a voice, and was completely alone in a room full of people, I am reminded why I felt that way. Today I want to talk to a few lessons I have learned throughout my career. Let’s take a look:
Being diverse is an asset.
Group think is a very real phenomenon where creativity and unique ideas are left to die. You should never underestimate how important your presence is. You bring a diverse perspective to the business situation and your voice should be heard - even if it is different. I know that I have personally struggled to make my opinion known in situations where I had the exact opposite idea than everyone sitting around me. So let me ask you this: How can you grow your business or become the best that you can be if you haven’t heard every idea? You can’t. You simply meet the status quo and, for me, that’s not good enough.
Whether you have two years in business or twenty-five, I guarantee that you have different experiences than those around you. You have worked in different organizations, executed different processes, interacted with people of varying experiences, most likely went to a different university - All of those different experiences brought you to where you are today and allow you to think in a different way than those around you. You are going to look at and solve problems differently. You are you, and that’s as different as it gets. Trust your intuition when it comes to addressing problems or talking about new ideas and don’t be afraid to speak up.
Here is an example: I briefly worked for an IT company and I know very little about IT. In that short time, I noticed that one of the founder’s accounts was deleted. He no longer worked at the organization so it wasn’t completely crazy, but my gut told me something was wrong. I went to the office of the IT department and told them what had happened. They were annoyed that I was in their office and brushed me off like some little girl who was trying to gossip. Frustrated, I went back to my desk and a few hours later I got a call from the CTO. It turns out the site had been hacked and they spent 3 full days (working around the clock, sleeping at work) fixing the code to ensure they were no longer susceptible to hackers.
My point? I have no experience in IT and the entire IT department sent me back to my desk feeling like an idiot, but it turns out something was wrong and speaking up saved our company from a lot more damage. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have. If your gut tells you something is wrong or that you have a solution to a problem or a great new idea, speak up. If you can’t find your voice, then find someone that will help you find yours.
Find an ally.
I sat in a training once where we discussed gender and racial specific issues within the workplace and a gentleman spoke to one of those issues saying, “We don’t have that issue in our department.” One of his female colleagues spoke up and said, “Yes, we do. You are simply blind to it because you have never experienced it yourself.” Ouch! Unfortunately (and not rightfully so!), so many are oblivious to what’s going on around them because they have never experienced it or no one trusts the individual enough to raise the topic. They don’t realize the struggles their colleagues face around them. They can’t stick up for you if they are oblivious to the world around them.
It should never be women against men, whites against blacks, homosexuals against heterosexuals, but it is easy to feel segregated when you are the only person of your kind in the room and you don’t have anyone on your side. It doesn’t need to be you vs. them, but I encourage you to find an ally, someone you can open up to (not someone to bitch to, but rather someone you can be open with), so that you never feel alone. What does an ally look like in the workplace?
An ally is someone who recognizes their own privilege, works to understand the struggles that their underrepresented colleagues are facing, speaks out against racial comments and microaggressions towards underrepresented groups, and actively works to ensure that others voices are heard - Essentially, they are the change you want to see in the workplace. I always like to reiterate that, within any given organization, we are all on the same team. We should all be moving forward to ensure the company as a whole succeeds. While that may not always be the case, it’s important that you find people to sit in your corner. Why? Because otherwise people may try to walk all over you.
Don’t let anyone walk over you.
I can’t describe the number of times that I have started to say something in a meeting and someone has held up their hand in my direction to silence me and then spoken up over me to say, “Please let me make this point.”. Do you know that when you start speaking over someone who is already talking and make statement similar to the one I just mentioned, you are indirectly telling the audience that your point is more valuable than your colleague’s.
It’s easy to get angry, sit back and let it happen, but I implore you to assert yourself. Why? Because being meek will get you nowhere in business and bullies will continue to bully unless you stand up to them. (This also applies to calling out individuals who are stealing other people’s ideas).
What can you do in this situation? Oftentimes people are unaware of how rude they are being if no one brings it to their attention. If you can buck up the courage quickly enough, I would tell you to sit up straight, look the person in the eyes, and calmly say, “Excuse me but I was speaking first. When I am done speaking then I’m happy to give you the floor.”. Hunching over, speaking softly, and not looking at the individual in question makes you come across as uncertain, and people shouldn’t be questioning whether or not you deserve the chance to make your point.
If you cannot bring yourself to address this individual in the moment, then pull them aside after the meeting and say something like, “It’s important to me that you understand how you come across when you interrupt others in a meeting. Not only is it impolite, but when you speak over them you are sending the message that your point is more important. I’m certain that isn’t your intention but I encourage you to be aware of this as we move forward.”.
If you are watching a similar situation play out, then be the change you want to see and say, “Excuse me, Susie was speaking first. I would like to hear what she has to say. After she is done I would love to hear what you have to say.”. Sometimes it takes someone else in the room to address the situation to bring about change (hopefully this is the ally you made in step 2!).
Don’t be a “token”.
When you are so busy fighting for yourself, it is easy to expend all of your energy on fitting in that you isolate the group of people that are most like you or anyone else that doesn’t “fit in” to the mold. It’s as if you are doing everything you can to fit in the Boys Club that you forget to make allies or even neglect other voices that also need to be heard. There isn’t room for just you, the white female or latin male or black male…, so don’t be a token (fill in the blank).
At the end of the day, the ultimate goal of the company, every department, and employee should be to build a successful company. If you are truly invested in the company, then you should do whatever is in your power to help the company and your colleagues succeed because, whether they are male or female, black, brown, or white, they are not your competition, they are your colleagues. Your work family. If we are going to break down these gender and racial biases and barriers, then both men and women need to work together, not against one another.
Here is an example: If you are a black female, you aren’t competing against all other black females in the company for a promotion - so don’t shut them out of your professional life if you have a good working relationship. You need people on your team because it takes a village to be successful. There is most certainly room for more than one black female at the top If you have colleagues who are like you that are smart, driven, and have good ideas, help make sure their voices are heard. Be their ally and the change you want to see.
I have a friend, a woman that I have been in business with, and she is my cheerleader. Her name may or may not be Annette. She hypes me up to others even at times where she is struggling. Why? Because it’s not me against her. It’s not us against men. We are all in this together and she is confident enough in herself and her abilities to recognize that. I can tell you that success is so much sweeter when you have people cheering you on, so don’t isolate yourself.
At the end of the day, there is no playbook to fix all of the problems in Corporate America. These are experiences that I have to remind myself of when I am struggling. I do hope that some of these ideas help you find your voice and the village that you need to succeed. No matter your age, race, gender, always remember that these qualities should not define your success. Success should be defined as the way you use your strengths and resources to achieve the greatest possible outcome for the department and, ultimately, the company. So don't try and be someone that you are not. Be you. After all, that is your greatest quality.
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