Only one woman on the team – is it a problem?

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Only one woman on the team – is it a problem?

Being the only woman on a team can increase the likelihood of sex discrimination, according to a new survey.

About 20% of women in managerial roles say they are frequently the only woman present at meetings or on projects, according to a recent US survey. This appears to increase the likelihood of sex discrimination, which in turn leads to other negative consequences for the organisation.

Key findings of survey

The survey results are in the latest Women in the Workplace Report, published by US management consultants McKinsey and conducted jointly by McKinsey and Lean In.

The survey covered the experiences of women in senior positions and compared them to the experiences of men, and also to other groups such as racial minorities and LGBQTI employees. It covered about 64,000 employees in 280 organisations.

The main comparative findings were that in “one woman” environments, compared to those with multiple women, women were:

  • more likely to have their judgment questioned in their area of expertise (49% versus 32%)
  • more likely to be mistaken for someone more junior (35% versus 15%)
  • more likely to be subject to unprofessional and demeaning remarks (24% versus 14%)
  • more often required to provide evidence of their qualifications and competence (51% versus 24%)
  • more likely to be addressed in an unprofessional way (35% versus 24%), and
  • more likely to overhear demeaning remarks made about them (16% versus 10%, with 26% of lesbian women more likely).

On the other hand, there was little difference in the likelihood that women’s work contributions would often be ignored (17% versus 16%).

The above are a mixture of both subtle and explicit forms of discrimination.

More than half (55%) of women in senior roles reported having been sexually harassed. Those who work, or had worked, in “single female” environments were much more likely to have been sexually harassed.

In cases where there was only one man in the work team, that man was more likely to be discriminated against in each of the above ways than in teams with multiple men, but the percentage differences were much smaller and the percentages of men discriminated against were much lower.

Overall, men in “single male” environments still fared slightly better than women in “multi-women” environments. Only 7% of the men who responded to the survey said they worked in “single male” environments.

Corrective reaction required

Consistent with workforce statistics and various other studies, the report found that women are significantly underrepresented in management roles.

The report commented that about two-thirds of new CEOs replace at least half of their senior management team within their first two years of their tenure. Regardless of the wisdom or otherwise of doing so, this suggests there are widespread opportunities to reduce the incidence of “single female” teams and environments.

The report recommended the following actions:

  • Review recruitment and promotion policies and procedures to identify and remove barriers to the progress of women.
  • Avoid the “single female” or “single male” situations as much as possible. Be proactive about appointing diverse teams. But don’t “solve” the problem by only doing it in work areas where women tend to dominate the workforce already.
  • Study the organisation culture carefully. Address issues that indicate lack of diversity and lack of respect. Make managers accountable for implementing improvements.
  • The report indicated that discrimination against women usually commences at an early stage in the recruitment processes and promotion pipelines, eg with entry-level positions. Investigate these for evidence of gender bias and take corrective action, for example wider availability of flexible work options.
  • Setting gender targets or quotas is a controversial step, but may work well in some organisations.
  • In-house support groups for women to meet and share experiences can be helpful where “single female” environments exist.

Further information

Women in the Workplace 2018

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