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Why having only one woman in the workplace is an issue for everyone

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It was good to see six women in the Democratic primary debates this week. We have finally have reached the point of gender equity where we no longer need to speak about one woman presidential candidate for a major political party in the United States. That is good for the women candidates because none of them has to shoulder the entire burden of representing all women. It is good for us because we can shift our focus from the novelty of a woman in the race to engaging with the ideas of each woman and thinking of whether she would be a good president.

Rachel Thomas, president of LeanIn.Org, raise those points in an editorial column where she suggests that we can learn lessons from more women participating in the campaign about the benefits of having more than one woman “in the room” not only on the debate stage but in the workplace in general. Thomas points out that according to a recent report on women in the workplace, one in five women within corporate America experiences herself as an “only” woman in the room. The report also highlights that problems women typically experience at work are magnified for onlys.

Onlys are also more likely to experience microaggressions, everyday slights like having their seniority or professional judgment questioned, or being talked over at meetings. Our former Vice President Joe Biden, for example, jokingly but inappropriately greeted Senator Kamala Harris on the debate stage Wednesday with “go easy on me kid.” Ian Sams, her campaign press secretary, questioned this reference to Harris, a former California attorney general and current United States senator, as a “kid.”

Demeaning comments leave women feeling less respected. A staggering 80 percent of onlys experience such microaggressions at work, compared to 64 percent of women in general. Moreover, onlys are almost twice as likely as other women to be sexually harassed at work, which ranges from having to hear sexist jokes to being touched inappropriately, according to the report. That makes it much harder for them to bring their best selves to the office and do their best work. Other research shows that teams with gender diversity will outperform teams dominated by men.

But adding one woman is not enough. Companies can help in ways that include isolating fewer women when forming teams. Lareina Yee, chief diversity and inclusion officer of McKinsey and Company, suggests that if you have to form 10 teams and only have enough women to put one on each team, it would be better to have some teams with all men and some with three women, so at least some teams have a critical mass of women who will have a better experience. Men can help by being more aware of inappropriate behavior and challenging it. Yee suggests that men can also help in important ways like making sure the only woman at a meeting who is being talked over repeatedly is heard by asking for her point of view.

Companies can be motivated to take the needed steps that result in fewer women being onlys because they care about their women employees or simply because they care about their bottom line. Talent loss is costly to employers, after all, and onlys are more likely to think about leaving their jobs. Yee cites research showing just 2 percent of women leave work to take care of their families and notes, “When a woman decides to leave, she is not leaving to go home. She is leaving to go to your competitor.”

Joseph Holt is an associate professor who teaches leadership and ethics with the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame.

Tags Business Economics Election Government Joe Biden Women

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