Speaking Up at Work as the Only Woman on My Team Feels Impossible—What Should I do?

When you’re stuck in a tough spot at work—you’re *this close* to burnout, you’re wondering whether your job is the right fit, your office culture could use a serious upgrade—who do you turn to? Your mentor, who has years of experience you can rely on? Your mom, who always keeps your best interests in mind? Or your BFF, who is dependable for a killer pep talk? Put all three perspectives in a blender, and you’ve got [email protected], Well+Good’s career advice column. See All

Question:

Even while working remotely, I often feel that as the only woman in the “room” on my team, I get boxed out of conversations because speaking up at work feels impossible. In effect, I feel that I’m less valuable to the team than I know I am, that my ideas aren’t heard or used, and that my career progress gets compromised as a result. What should I do?

Answer:

I am glad you asked this question because I would bet money that others feel similarly to you, if not the exact same way. I have been the only “one” in the room—in relation to both gender and racial identity—so I understand all too well just how isolating that can feel. It’s neither fun nor acceptable to be made to feel like a hidden figure during a team meeting or in the workplace in general. Furthermore, this feeling of being boxed out or invisible may feel even more compounded in a virtual environment. But regardless of your setup—whether it’s a virtual office or a physical one—your voice and talent should be recognized, seen, and heard.

Many of us are still working in remote environments, wherein getting a word in during meetings can be tough. Certain colleagues may continuously take up space and not be self-aware enough to realize they aren’t helping to create space for others on their team who are not part of the majority in-group and, thus, may not feel safe and supported in speaking up at work to share a different take.

According to a 2019 McKinsey study conducted in partnership with LeanIn.org, women make up one in five positions in C-suite roles at Fortune 500 companies. And for women of color, it’s, even more isolating, with one 25 in C-suite roles. So the unfortunate, ugly truth is that many of us are the only or one of a small few on our respective work teams. But despite that unpleasant current reality, there’s good news: You don’t need to remain feeling boxed in. We get to decide how we want to educate, activate, and leverage our voices to ensure those statistics have no place to go but up. Below find three ideas for speaking up at work; I bet that in implementing them, you’ll find yourself climbing out of that box.

3 strategies for speaking up at work to feel less boxed out as the only woman on your team.

1. Use your resources, no matter if you’re working virtually or in person

In virtual environments, I’ve found the chat feature on video-call platforms can be my best friend because it allows me to use my voice in a nonverbal way. I don’t necessarily have to speak up to communicate my stance on every agenda item, yet I can use the chat function to make sure my colleagues know that I am engaged in the conversation and that I have ideas and thoughts I want to get across. The chat box can alleviate a lot of pressure to help get you back in the conversation.

The chat feature on video-call platforms can be my best friend because it allows me to use my voice in a nonverbal way.

If you’re in a physical environment, I challenge you to think of one or two items to address to signal to your team that you are an active participant and that your voice matters—even if they don’t recognize it. It’s important to permit ourselves to create our own space in the room, and sometimes, leaning into our courage allows us to activate our voice in new ways. Some of our colleagues might not be aware they’re exuding an air of exclusivity, but the more we show up for ourselves, the more they’ll have to create the space for you. Because, frankly, you aren’t going to have it any other way. You deserve a workplace where you can thrive, not just survive.

2. Teamwork makes the dream work

What I am about to tell you might feel uncomfortable, but sometimes it’s necessary to have a conversation with colleagues in order to help them see the importance of everyone on the team having equity. If they are the dominant voice in your team meetings, they need to be aware of how they are isolating or boxing out others on the team.

Encourage them to act in allyship by setting an example of how it looks to create space for all views to be shared and valued. An example of this might be, “I noticed that Sarah was trying to come off mute a couple of times. Sarah did you want to chime in?” By doing this, you can notice how simple it can be to create space for a colleague and humanize the experiences of everyone on the team. Not everyone feels like they need to battle to get their voices heard during every call, and this small but mighty action might signal to other colleagues they could be more emotionally aware of the team’s dynamics. Start by having a conversation with one of your team members and see how it goes.

3. Patience is a virtue

I wish I could tell you that once you implement points one and two, something magical happens, and you won’t feel boxed out again. But the only part of the equation you can solve with certainty is the action that you take. Educator and author Stephen Covey said, “I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.” So, even though it might initially seem like nothing has changed after you invoke these strategies, know that it might take time for your actions to affect how others perceive and respond to your new way of self-advocacy. Meaning, sometimes self-advocacy isn’t a sprint, but a marathon. Still, advocating for yourself is among the greatest acts of self-love. It will empower you to feel less isolated in knowing that you are making your presence known and centering yourself on the team.

Lastly, don’t forget to believe in yourself. You don’t have to prove to anyone that you belong—you do! You only have to prove to yourself that you’re worth advocating for, and I challenge you to start today. Your small acts of courage in speaking up at work will allow you stop anyone from boxing you out moving forward.

minda harts

Minda Harts is the author of the best-selling book The Memo: What Women of Color Need To Know To Secure A Seat At The Table. She is the CEO of The Memo LLC and an Adjunct Professor at NYU Wagner. She hosts a podcast and LinkedIn Live Show called Secure The Seat. Minda lives in New York and has a French bulldog named Boston. Follow her on TwitterInstagram, and sign up for her newsletter here.