How can I navigate being the only woman in my team and overcome feelings of exclusion?

Being the only woman on a team can be a challenge.  I was involved in a recent conversation where some women in tech were sharing how they felt the need to feign interest in activities or sports they wouldn’t normally engage in, just to be part of the workplace banter.  They described being conscious of not talking about their children for fear that it would limit their growth opportunities. Whilst I haven’t been the only woman on a team, I can relate to the need to be liked, respected, and accepted by my peers.  Sometimes that need has been so strong it has had me shapeshift and adapt to fit in and gain approval.

The thing is the more we adapt ourselves to fit in, the less we are clear what we are standing for. We unconsciously bend ourselves out of shape, hoping to avoid rejection. Reacting to that fear can have us over work in relationship and abandon our true selves.

So, it’s got me curious about how we can navigate these challenges without compromising our authenticity or sense of self?

Is it truly possible to be the only one and not feel excluded?

Can we do something about it personally when in truth it sits at the leadership level as a systemic issue?

I suppose it starts with the question of what or to whom do we truly belong to? It might sound simple, but I think belonging is a personal experience based on self-acceptance and practices that support that.

Cultivating radical self-acceptance

It is said somewhere that seeing is believing and how we see ourselves matters.  When we accept ourselves, we honour who we are at our core.  We let go of social comparison, self-criticism, and judgement.  We stop believing we are defective in some way.  We regulate our emotions and set healthy expectations for ourselves. We own what matters to us and the choices we make regardless of how others perceive us.

Recognising your value

When we recognise our value as we are we take pride in ourselves.  It’s an active decision to value our worthiness and step into our own personal agency.  Do you know the qualities that impact others simply by being you?  Do you take ownership of these wonderful qualities?  I started to realise that whilst what I did mattered, what was more important was how I was with others.  I bring qualities to conversations that are unique: spaciousness, curiosity, silence, depth, and a quirky essence that’s playful, fresh, and unpredictable.  Your presence matters.  It brings diversity of thought, perspective and skills that enrich the team’s dynamics.  When you recognise your unique value, you worry less about being the only one and instead get a sense of congruence within yourself that you are honouring yourself.

Building allies

When we fear we don’t fit in, we sometimes unconsciously isolate ourselves. Fear is a protracted energy.  It promotes shrinking and hiding behaviours.  What if you are actually surrounded by people who likely want to support you?   As an example, when I first moved into self-employment I ran a free workshop to a coaching community.  One of the coaches in the room came up to me at the end and said, “you’re cool.”  Our paths didn’t cross for a while but then we ended up doing the same associate work together.  He’s turned out to be the most supportive ally, always championing me and calling me forth. Your allies will are waiting for you.  They might be colleagues, friends, associates who share similar experiences or interests, or maybe they’re those people who are committed to promoting diversity and inclusion. Waiting for them to find you might be part of the issue.  Don’t wait, reach out and discover them.

Assert yourself

I used to be someone who was cautious about sharing my views.  I would go to say something and then stop myself, worrying how it might be received.  I started to see that this was coming from a polarised mindset of “either it would be well received or rejected”.  I began to tell myself that as humans, we can hold multiple perspectives.  I notice now if I hold back and instead make the conscious decision to speak up because if I don’t, that information will be lost to the team. Confidence in your abilities and opinions is key to gaining respect and recognition. Speak up when you have ideas or insights to contribute and don’t downplay your achievements.

Create opportunities for connection

At the end of the day, we are humans first.  Whilst we may have differences in power, status or shared interests, there are challenges that we all navigate because we’re human.   Building strong relationships with your colleagues can help foster a sense of belonging and inclusion. A colleague of mine recently initiated a team wellness conversation.  From her mooting the initial idea we’ve had conversations about menopause, diet, exercise, strength training, ageing, and relationships.  We’ve built deeper connections from these conversations and more shared understanding and mutual respect.

Address issues directly

If you experience instances of exclusion or bias, address them directly and professionally.  Communicate how certain behaviours or comments make you feel and assert your right to be treated with respect and fairness.  It’s important to advocate for yourself and set boundaries when necessary.  It might feel uncomfortable to start with but what I’ve learnt is that it’s better to choose temporary discomfort than build silent resentments.

Being the only woman in a team can present challenges, but it’s important to remember that you have the power to shape your experience. By practicing radical self-acceptance, recognising your value, building allies, asserting yourself, creating opportunities for connection and addressing issues directly, you can navigate these challenges and overcome feelings of exclusion.

And remember, your presence and contributions are invaluable and you deserve to be recognised and respected for them.