Being the only one

This phrase refers to being the "only one" of an underrepresented group (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc) in a majority group. The "only one" may commonly (though not exclusively) experience:

  1. Pressure (overt or not) to speak for all members of their group and to educate others on matters related to their group

  2. Loneliness, isolation, lack of common experiences and cultural backgrounds

  3. Internal conflict when hearing derogatory comments – whether to break harmony / take a stand or "keep the peace" / be silently upset

  4. Discomfort speaking up and fully engaging in teamwork

  5. Decreased productivity and effectiveness due to Stereotype Threat (covered in a future newsletter)


I was glad to be encouraged to play my music at work even though it was likely different than what my manager & white coworkers listened to. They wanted to be exposed to music I liked. 

More Champions

A white, male colleague began debating me about the difference between racism and prejudice seemingly out of nowhere. I wasn't interested in having this debate. Fortunately, a different white, male co-worker stepped in and said the original guy was wrong and moved the conversation away from this topic. 

Hear it Firsthand 1

It was always hard feeling like I didn’t belong with a certain group of white coworkers. They all liked the same type of music that I didn't listen to and did activities I didn't do (snowboarding at Tahoe, EDM concerts, etc) – and the surprise or shock they’d always have when I hadn’t heard of the musicians. It made me feel very different. 

Hear it Firsthand 2 

I was once asked to answer another colleague's question during a sexual harassment meeting by the HR rep. She started by saying, "is there a black person here?" I (a black woman) did not make a sound. Someone pointed me out. She then asked me, "could you explain why it's funny when a black comedian uses the N word, but not a white comedian." As every angry black stereotype flashed through my head, I just complied while NO ONE, including the full time HR person said a thing. One of the worst experiences of my life. Only black woman in a company of 160.

Facts and Data

  • A study on differing numbers of female board directors found big differences between having one, two, and three women. Solo women experience much of the "being the only one" effect and find participation challenging. Two women directors are perceived as a separate subgroup from the board. At three, the "female directors" become "directors" and the team culture shifts towards collaboration, sustained focused, and a broadened scope of work [HBR]

  • Social events and relationship building – activities that aren't always obvious but very important for advancement – are harder to navigate for underrepresented people due to a lack of shared background and cultural landmarks [HBR]

Take Action

  • Add some structure to social settings. Informal social settings cause stress for many people navigating social interactions. Adding some structure (ice breakers, little competitions/games, a leader doing introductions) can really help [HBR]

  • Value diversity. Diverse teams have been found over and over to produce better and more creative results. You don't have to be everyone's best friend, but taking an interest in coworkers' lives and interests helps people feel they belong [HBR]

  • Mentorship. Creating structured systems to match people with mentors helps facilitate career advancing relationships [HBR]

  • See something, say something. If you see or hear uninclusive behavior, even if it wasn't intentional, do your best to do something about it