ALC English Journal July 2012

One of the Few Women at Work

QUESTION:  “I’m one of the few women in a leadership position in my company, and often I’m the only woman at meetings. Sometimes I feel lonely. Please help!”

ANSWER:  I feel your pain! I’m a physicist by education, and have worked mostly with men my entire career, so I know what it’s like to work in your situation. While about half of all workers are women, there are still relatively few women in leadership positions. And the higher up the hierarchy you go in most organizations, the fewer women there are. This is truly a pity because research has shown that companies with more women in leadership positions are more successful. Although I truly love working with my men colleagues, being one of only a few women leaders in an organization – and the only woman in meetings – can be challenging.

You’re not alone! Gradually more women are being promoted to leadership positions in organizations. And the coming shortage of workers in the developed world in the next decade or so will accelerate women’s participation in the business leadership. This is especially true in countries like Japan and Germany, which will experience the greatest shortage of workers! But, how can you survive until other women leaders appear in your workplace? Here are a few approaches that have worked for me.

Have a “Girls Night Out”. Occasionally schedule a social event with other women leaders at your company. This will give your spirits a much-needed boost, and strengthen valuable relationships.

Start a professional women’s network. Organize periodic events with other women leaders within your company focused on increasing women’s contributions to the business success. Some ideas are hosting “Lunch & Learn” speakers, or a business book reading club. Oh, and don’t exclude men! They can be very supportive of expanding women’s contributions at work.

Join a professional women’s association. There are many women leaders in other companies who are in the same situation as you. Seek them out via professional associations. In my experience women professionals are extremely generous in sharing their experience and advice with each other.

Reach out to men, too! Build strong relationships with your male colleagues. Don’t be afraid to seek their advice, invite them to join you for lunch, or ask them for help. If you show sincere interest in them, listen generously to their stories, and express your appreciation, they will naturally be more supportive of you.

Get a mentor. Both women and men mentors are extremely valuable. A male mentor in a more senior leadership position can help you feel more connected to what’s happening in your company. Don’t run up to someone and ask him or her to be your mentor. Start by approaching someone you respect and saying “I admire you, and would very much appreciate your guidance and advice on my career. Would you be available to have a conversation over a cup of tea with me sometime?” If the conversation goes well you can say “This was such a valuable experience! Would you be willing to meet with me periodically to continue our conversation?”

Maintain friendships. Don’t rely only on work to satisfy your need for female companionship. Stay in touch with women friends outside of work. Too busy? Make time! I find a regular “gal pal” social event restores my sense of humor and heals my tattered soul.

As a woman in a leadership position, you’re a trailblazer. Women’s contributions are absolutely vital to business success in this world, and I believe women must step up to playing a bigger role in solving the problems we face as a planet. Being a trailblazer can feel a bit lonely at times. Reach out, stay connected, and don’t even think of giving up! Change is coming.

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