The Only Woman in the Room

I work at a tech company. I’m in a non-technical position, but in a field that’s still typically male-dominated, which means that, with some regularity, I find myself to be the only woman in a meeting.

I’m rarely meeting with work colleagues about gender issues, so it shouldn’t matter that I’m the only woman, but still: I notice when I look around a meeting room and see only men. The dynamics are subtle, but omnipresent; when I’m the only woman, I feel extra pressure to be brilliant. I’m speaking for more than just my own opinion, and suddenly anything I say is not only taken as What Petra Thinks but also What A Woman Thinks, never mind if my female coworkers would vehemently disagree with me. Especially in areas already laden with gendered expectations—math, for example—I have to tread more carefully in a male-dominated meeting than in a more balanced meeting.

Moreover, when I’m the only woman, I’m an implicit gatekeeper of tone and topics, at least among the mostly respectful men I’m lucky to work with. In a meeting once, years ago, a male friend of mine made an off-color joke; this was common in the field where I worked, and the joke wasn’t remotely mean-spirited or offensive, but I noticed that before everyone laughed they glanced at me, quickly, somewhat surreptitiously, as if to check that I was laughing before they gave themselves permission to laugh. In some ways, that level of respect is lovely, but in others it only emphasized to me that I was an Other: I wasn’t just another person in that meeting, but someone or something different. Paradoxically, the deference they showed me around that joke left me feeling more tokenized than respected, and had me more on edge for the rest of the meeting, realizing that the men there saw me as a woman first and co-worker second (which, of course, in turn only increased the pressure on me to represent All Women Everywhere in my comments, instead of just My Own Opinion).

These are my experiences, of course, but the research suggests I’m not alone in this. Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s early work on tokenism, for example, identifies the potential consequences of visibility, polarization, and assimilation: the single representative of a group stands out in that group, feeling more pressure to perform well since their actions reflect on their entire group; differences are emphasized, with the norms of the dominant culture even more strongly enforced; and finally, the token is expected to conform or assimilate to stereotypes of their under-represented group, forcing them into even more constrained roles. What’s more, women who are outnumbered speak up less (demonstrated by research out of BYU!), meaning that a meeting with only one woman in the room may be getting less of even that woman’s perspective, silenced as she may be by the pressures of representing her group. (That, or the interruptions. Don’t get me started on that.) 

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The dynamics of my workplace are obviously different than those at church in many ways; I can’t imagine anyone telling an off-color joke in ward council, for example. Still, when I read about the “progress” we’re making in including a woman in the major Church decision-making councils, or when I watch for women speaking in General Conference, I can’t help but think of my work experiences. I’m glad for the baby steps we’re taking; a meeting with one woman in it is better than an all-male meeting, surely, where that meeting makes decisions for the whole Church, but it’s not enough.

When a Relief Society President is invited, as the sole woman, to her ward’s priesthood executive committee meeting, what pressure does she feel to speak for women as a class, versus the individual–and diverse–women within her stewardship? Does she feel like she truly belongs, and can speak her mind freely, or is she an Other in the meeting, attending only at the whim of the bishop, and therefore potentially constraining her expression of her opinions? (For example, does she feel like she has to ask for permission to speak? Elder Cook’s “LDS Women Are Incredible” talk inadvertently revealed a dynamic like this: in a meeting, the stake Relief Society President suggests a great solution, but only after asking “if it would be appropriate for her to say something.”)

Similarly, when only one woman speaks per day in General Conference, does she feel free to speak for herself, or does she feel like she must represent a “woman’s perspective”, as if there is such a thing? And moreover: how often does the audience regard her as an individual, versus simply “the woman’s talk”? Do we truly distinguish our female leaders and their distinct styles from each other in the ways we distinguish, say, the unique strengths and styles of President Monson and President Uchtdorf, or do we simply use the woman’s slot as time to take a bathroom break or complain about Primary voice?

When there’s only one woman in the room, it’s far too easy to treat her as a symbol rather than an individual, and that impacts both what she says and how we hear it. We’re gradually adding women to our decision-making councils, and I’m happy about that, but it’s not enough. We need a Church culture, and formal operating structures, that give more room to women’s voices, and women’s perspectives, not as tokens, not as invited special guests who must ask for permission to speak, but as people, who can speak for themselves and their individual stewardships without the pressures of representing all members of their group everywhere. We need, in other words, more than one woman in the room.

4 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Yes! All of this. And in most wards there are more active women in the ward than men. Majority represented by a minority with little power or institutional voice.




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  2. The Bechdel test applies in meetings as well as in movies: is there more than one woman in the room? Do they talk to each other about something besides men? Sadly, our meetings are worse than many movies in this respect. Let’s clear off a few more chairs at every meeting and invite active commentary from all of the women, especially the stuff that we men do not want to hear!




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