I was recently mentoring a very accomplished woman physician scientist participating in a one-year leadership development program for women. In the course of our discussion, she asked me if I’m ever in situations when I am the only woman in the room. I told her about a meeting when a colleague leaned over and whispered, do you realize that you’re the only woman in the room? I responded – I do now!
The point is, being the outlier in the room was not on my mind until he mentioned it. From that moment on, I was quite conscious of my difference. How does our awareness of being “the only woman” influence how we behave, not to mention lead, within groups?
During the mentoring session, this scientist mentioned to me that she is in a national group of researchers and is, you guessed it, the only woman. I asked her if she is the one taking the minutes of their discussions together, and she replied with an emphatic Yes. She told me it had been mentioned that she does the lion’s share of the work behind the scenes while the men in the group are taking more of the credit and visibility. She asked me how she could have approached this situation differently.
Group projects take a huge amount of ‘little’ tasks like minutes-taking, organizing meetups and following up with action items. I told this woman that, rather than raising her hand to a task (or several tasks), go into the meeting with a sense of leadership over the division of labor. Take action to ensure that note-taking and all the other little tasks are assigned equally among the group’s members. Anticipate what will need to be done and speak first. Remember, there are no ‘default’ note-takers.
Finally, it is good to take credit for your group’s work. Taking credit is how you acknowledge all the experience you’ve gained, both to yourself and to others. As women, we are taught to internalize certain notions of ourselves: good manners, good penmanship, humble with accomplishments, the list goes on. But self-promotion is only ugly when it isn’t earned. If your group has done a good job, then you have done a good job, and you can feel good about promoting yourself for it.
How have you approached being the only woman in the room? What are your methods for self-promotion? I’d love to hear your stories.