When You Are the Only Woman in the Room

I don’t know how or when it started that I was the only woman in the room. It could have been growing up with two older brothers, going to a former all-boys prep school, Tabor Academy, or majoring in government at a formerly all-women’s college, Skidmore College. In each of those scenarios, I was either actually or nearly the only woman in the room. Just this year, I again found myself in that position. I was literally the only woman in a room filled with architects, engineers, city comissioners and other interested parties discussing the design and construction of a new fire station for the City of Yonkers, New York.

I am currently the only female commissioner. I am the first female Commissioner of Planning and Economic Development. In addition, I am probably the only woman in Yonkers history to fill the positions of Director of Downtown Waterfront Development, Deputy Commissioner and Commissioner of Planning and Economic Development simultaneously.

One of the other commissioners with whom I am friends told me that, “Being a commissioner is the loneliest job in the world.” With endless budget cuts and the jockeying for power and position that goes on, that commentary may be true, and that is without factoring in being the only one of your gender doing it. So how does one cope?

-Speak up. I do not speak for talking’s sake, but I will have my opinion heard. On more than one occasion, I have disagreed with my boss and/or my fellow commissioners. But, I was taught that if it’s a task worth doing, then it’s a task worth doing right. If I feel we are heading down the wrong path, I speak up.

-Speak out. In 1996, I wanted to volunteer for the Bob Dole for President Campaign. I was told at that time that I could not get a job as a volunteer or paid employee unless I engaged in sexual activity with a person who had the power to block me. I immediately reported him to the ethics officer, an investigation was conducted and he was terminated.

-Be prepared. When people try to diminish or dismiss women, a common tactic is to accuse them of sleeping their way to the top. Rarely is such a charge leveled against a man. As Bill Gates famously said, “Life is not fair. Get used to it.” While we work to make life more fair, be prepared to deal with the fact that some people, even other women, will stoop lower than you thought humanly possible.

-Other women in the workplace are not necessarily your allies. I could tell you that I have had a number of female bosses who were amazing. It’s true. But, I could also tell you that I have worked for several women who were the worst bosses I ever had. That is also true. I have been mentored by some truly amazing women and men. There is no place for a gender agenda. Good colleagues, bosses and staff are men and women, black and white, gay and straight, native-born and immigrant and everything in between.

-Mentoring is key. Mentoring is important in the workplace, particularly for women. If you can make it easier for the next generation of women to rise through the ranks, then someday we may get equal pay for equal work, we may get more seats at the table, and we may not constantly have to focus on what Sheryl Sandberg identified as, “leaning in.”

I don’t pretend to have all of the answers or the right answer for every scenario. But now I sit down to dinner with a group of approximately 30 women that I founded called “The Amazing Women” who are all industry leaders in their fields in Westchester and we compare notes about our challenges and struggles. More times than not we find that the above are reoccurring themes or issues that women in government, women in the workplace, women as pioneers, and women as leaders face. You are not alone, even if you are the only woman in the room.

Wilson Kimball is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Profile Photo Nicole Blake Johnson

Thank you for sharing! I remember when I started writing about government IT and wondered why I was often the only woman and minority in the room. Since then, I have seen some improvements, but it is far from being a reflection of the communities that government serves. The advice you provided is spot on. I recently attended a panel of women in tech, and one of the tips was to take a seat at the table and also make room for others at the table. That gets to your point of mentoring and bringing others along on your journey.

Profile Photo Joyce tabb

Thank you for sharing. I remember more than once being not the only woman, but the only Black woman in the room. Speaking up and speaking out is surely a key to survival. However, I do find I intimidate a lot of men when I do this. I have learned a lot from my 20 years military career from being a high ranking NCOIC, to take charge, be a leader, a team player, and teach others. This has not changed for me, but does create issues in the work place from male managers who consider me a “problem”. I don’t plan to change. I am nearing retirement and look forward to the opportunity to running my own business.

Profile Photo richard regan

Being the Only American Indian in the Room
In 1991, when I decided to move to Washington, DC with my future wife, I left the safe confines of my Tribal Community of southeastern North Carolina. It was my first experience with people who do not look like me, talk like me, act like me or think like me. When it came to finding other people in my in-group in the nation’s Capital, it was slim pickings since few Native People live in the Washington, DC area.

Even though I had moved out of Indian Country, it did not take long to find people with Indigenous blood in their veins. I discovered American Indian public servants at other federal agencies as well as pockets of Native activism outside of work.

Despite these connections, the one place I never felt any connection with my personal identity was the federal agency I was working in. Most of the time I was the only American Indian on my team, staff or business unit.

Here are some of the painful lessons I have learned over my federal government career regarding being the only American Indian in the room.

Pressure to Represent
I am frequently asked to speak for American Indians at various events, in an advisory capacity or as a technical consultant. While this type of attention can be flattering, it is disconcerting that if I make a mistake in this role that it may impact the future of others like me.

Oftentimes, I am expected to know every little fact and history tidbit on each square inch of Indian country that is the equivalent to the size of the New England states. Sorry, but I do not know in detail the culture and history of the 573 federally recognized tribes in the country. It has taken me a lifetime just to master my own Tribal identity.

While my supervisors know where to find me in the room when it comes to American Indian consultancy, they were nowhere to be found when I raise American Indian social identity concerns to them.

Don’t Depend on Assistance from Other People of Color In the Room
Natural allies from another subordinate group are in scarce supply. You think this would be exactly the opposite. That other underrepresented groups in the workplace would understand that the American Indian problem is everyone’s problem. These disengaged groups are slow to work on the challenges of other marginalized employees since they fear their very limited pool of resources and energy will be diluted if other voices are added to the mix.

I do not relish the benefits of privilege enjoyed by employees in dominate groups in the room due to my membership in a subordinate group. This lack of privilege is on display when I seek information or feedback on American Indian issues and in turn, get labeled as needy or incompetent. On occasions when I make a complaint or seek justice about American Indian issues, my group membership is often called into question.

What people who dominate the room say to the one American Indian in the room is we are not going to give up our power and privilege to make you feel like part of the room. For to relinquish this power, we would have to admit that we are ready to recognize and embrace you.

One way they wield this power while they are still in the majority is to rally their fellow like-minded people to join the effort to put down this one person rebellion as they coalesce around their shared power. This is easy to do since most of their members come from places of privilege and power in the first place. We must put these upstarts in their place they grumble. They can sit at that table but they can just coexist.

Sometimes when they are desperate they will defend their privilege from a nuclear arsenal of other sources such as the media, history, religion, education and government. These are easy repositories of resources for them since they have exclusive access to these institutions any way.

Walking in Two Worlds
The biggest challenge is negotiating two distinct cultures while being in the room. Federal government workplace culture is heavily dependent on individual achievement and competition. I was raised in a Native culture with emphasis on group success and cooperation. Individual progress was measured on how well the group fared. One person’s good fortune should cause everyone’s boats to rise. No one was left behind because the group’s welfare was based on cumulative personal achievement. If a Tribal member is hurting, then the entire Tribe is hurting.

This is not the case in the room. It is everyone for themselves.

Negative Micro-Messages
As an American Indian federal government employee, I have received my fair share of negative messages while in the room.

• When I see you, I don’t view you as an American Indian. Message- your racial experience is not valid here because I am colorblind to your existence.
• You are so articulate for an American Indian. Message- it is unusual for someone like you to be intelligent so I am basing your intelligence level on the rest of your racial group.
• You do not look like an American Indian. Prove it. Message-we will define who you are in this room.
• If you work hard, you can succeed like everyone else. Message- If you don’t succeed, you have only yourself to blame. I must work twice as hard as anybody else in the room.

Being the only one of something in the room leads to racial fatigue syndrome. A term coined by Dr. William Smith from the University of Utah, it refers to the cumulative effect of micro-aggressions, implicit humiliations, subtle slights imposed upon the only person of something in the room by the dominate group.

I often dream as to what it would feel like if American Indians controlled the room. Then it dawned on me that we were the architects of the original room. When we welcomed a group of strangers with the right hand of friendship to our country only to have to learn the skills of coexistence from them as we struggle to stay in the very room that we created.

Profile Photo Joyce tabb

Richard, thanks for your testimony. I know exactly how you feel. I was reading this and I was reading my own experience over the 43 years of working, not just for the government. My great-great-grandmother was an American Indian who came from Canada. I do understand. Blessing to you.