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Women at the Table: How to Thrive When You’re the Only One

Have you ever been the only woman at the table? A room full of men and the traditional business norms? I have, and it wasn’t comfortable. I was new in my leadership role, new to the business, and completely unaware of the social/ business norms I was plunged into. There were inside jokes, separate lingo and an undercurrent culture. I was nervous to speak up, advocate for my customers, or even argue a different point of view.

Over time I gained self-confidence and found my voice at that table. I figured out the lingo, made a few allies, and let my unique skills and position do the talking. While I was effective and eventually one of the stronger leaders in the room, I never quite got the continued cultural nuances of the male-dominated environment.

I coach many women executives who have similar experiences. There is growing frustration amongst them: either need to conform to the male culture and expectations or pave a new path. Paving that path can come with extreme risk, isolation, and judgement. But conforming to the existing culture will continue the cycle of imposter syndrome and isolation for women leaders coming up behind them.

What are the norms that women executives face? It can be different in every space, but some common themes include:

  • Physical presence: Taking physical space at the table, how we present ourselves, even our attire matters more for women leaders.

  • The art of dialogue: In order to “fit in”, women often feel they need to be an expert in more topics rather than harnessing the art of finesse and persuasion.

  • Where the business happens: Why is it always the golf course, and never a book club or pickle-ball court?

  • The gender pay gap: Doing the same work for less compensation leads to inequity at the table.

  • The boys club- Navigating inside-jokes, culture etc.

It can feel overwhelming to try to buck the entire system, but you can make small changes or adjustments. Spend some time with your thoughts and develop your list of what matters most to you. Then start chipping away at that list and revisit your progress and next steps often.

Here are some tools I’ve used to make my place at the table:

  • Do a thought download around any self-imposed manuals of how to be at the table

  • Ask curious questions and give input, even if you are not the subject expert. Be a learner and contribute from that place.

  • Take your space at the table and stay confident.

  • Remember why you are at the table. You don’t always need to be the expert, sometimes you are a propeller of ideas. And you are not the token note-taker or social scheduler.

  • Be authentically you. Resist conforming to the traditional roles or spaces.

  • Call it out when you see it. Have courage to change the culture bit by bit.

  • Create a women's support network and have a sponsor to help mentor and guide you

How will you show up at the table? I can’t wait to hear!

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