Say no to 'onliness' (and other ways to achieve gender balanced teams)

Achieving a critical mass of women in a team is recognised as an important step towards greater gender balance in organisations. It’s easier to influence and speak up when there’s a critical mass of at least 30 per cent around the decision-making table.

Many of us know how isolating or lonely it can be when you’re in a visible minority or not part of the dominant ‘in-group’ of an organisation. But new research has pointed to some additional reasons why being a minority can be disempowering, even dangerous. 

McKinsey & Co’s latest research on women in the workplace has found women are more likely to experience micro-aggressions, harassment and discrimination when they’re the ‘only’ woman on a team.

Women ‘onlys’ are ‘far more likely than others to have their judgment questioned than women working in a more balanced environment (49 percent versus 32 percent), to be mistaken for someone more junior (35 percent versus 15 percent), and to be subjected to unprofessional and demeaning remarks (24 percent versus 14 percent), McKinsey says.

Women are more likely to experience micro-aggressions, harassment and discrimination when they’re the ‘only’ woman on a team.

‘If they are treated like this,’ say the researchers, ‘no wonder they get overlooked for promotion.’

The reports spells out the additional level of scrutiny and higher performance standards of women only’s.

‘Because there are so few, women Onlys stand out in a crowd of men. This heightened visibility can make the biases women Onlys face especially pronounced. While they are just one person, they often become a stand-in for all women—their individual successes or failures become a litmus test for what all women are capable of doing.

‘With everyone’s eyes on them, women Onlys can be heavily scrutinized and held to higher performance standards. As a result, they most often feel pressure to perform, on guard, and left out. In contrast, when asked how it feels to be the only man in the room, men Onlys most frequently say they feel included.’ 

Women Only’s can be heavily scrutinized and held to higher performance standards, says McKinsey & Co.

Women Only’s can be heavily scrutinized and held to higher performance standards, says McKinsey & Co.

The research shows ‘women onlys’ fare much worse than women in small groups of two or three. As a result, they recommend clustering women in groups rather than spreading them thinly across divisions, to avoid the situation where they might be the only woman in a team or technical area. 

In other words, as McKinsey puts it: say no to ‘onlineness’.

The take-out for organisations? If your company has women onlys in some teams (and we know it’s particularly common in engineering and IT functions of many organisations), think about ways you can cluster them and provide active sponsorship.

As well as clustering, mentoring programs, leadership rotations, stretch assignments, and gaining operational experience early in their careers are also helpful career development techniques.

‘Banishing onliness does not replace the goal of gender parity in the C-suite nor the need for a more complex strategy to achieve it. But our research suggests it will diminish some of the barriers that hold women back.’

These are important insights for any organisation committed to achieving gender balanced leadership teams, which, as substantial research indicates, contributes to better performance, innovation and levels of belonging in our organisations.

Putting it into action: Mentoring program for women leaders

Diversity Partners is currently facilitating a mentoring program for high-potential women in a financial services organisation, with the long-term goal of achieving more gender balanced leadership teams.

In this program, each woman mentee is paired with a mentor (male and female) in a reciprocal mentoring relationship, recognising that learning is often two-way (particularly in cross-gender relationships where leaders have the opportunity to develop their understanding of potential gender barriers in the organisation.)

As Management Professor Wendy Murphy wrote in Harvard Business Review earlier this year, encouraging more men to mentor women: ‘Good mentors identify opportunities, open doors, and connect mentees to challenging assignments so they learn and grow. You will only be capable of doing so if you ask questions and then listen, listen, listen to understand, affirm, and validate what your mentee needs. Cross-gender mentoring requires that you make efforts to learn about one another and empathise.’

We’re coordinating the matching process, leading workshops for mentors and mentees, and providing structured support and online resources over the course of twelve months.

‘Cross-gender mentoring requires that you make efforts to learn about one another and empathise.’

Professor Wendy Murphy

The program is led by Dr Katie Spearritt and Senior Associate and experienced Leadership Coach, Lisa Williams, who has recently completed the INSEAD Executive Master (Individual and Organisational Psychology) Coaching and Consulting for Change in Singapore.

If you’d like to learn more about this program, or any other offerings to progress diversity and inclusion in your organisation, please email us at info@diversitypartners.com.au.