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  • Writer's pictureJenn Donahue

How to Lead as the “Only Woman in the Room”

How do you speak and lead confidently when you’re faced with being the only woman in the room?

As a former U.S. Navy military officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and a seismic engineer that founded my own firm to chase earthquakes, I really understand what it’s like to be the only female in an environment dominated by men.

There are such few women engineers to begin with and even fewer that go into the military. So, I’ve gotten really used to not only being the only woman in the room, but also leading and commanding a team full of men.

While this became my normal, I decided I don’t want it to continue to be the industry normal.

It has become my mission as a leadership coach to bring more women into the STEM fields and help them lead authentically, even in a male-oriented environment.

Being the only woman in the room can feel intimidating at times, especially when you’re surrounded by people that may be older than you or perhaps more distinguished.

If you can learn to use your knowledge base, shift your perspective, activate your confidence, develop a toolbox of communication techniques, and build a strong support network, you will be able to perform at your best, even when you are the only woman in the room.

Keep reading to learn how to be a leader as “the only woman in the room.”

Use your Knowledge Base

When you are prepared and knowledgeable, you can choose to speak with maximum impact, knowing the facts and being able to back them up with confidence.

Oftentimes, as women (or even just introverts), we tend to doubt ourselves. We choose to not speak up (sometimes even if we are the leader!) because we fear our answer is not right, incomplete, or not insightful enough. When we are leading, we may even think we don’t know what we are talking about or don’t deserve to be in a leadership position.

The truth is, if you find yourself standing in the position you’re in, then you deserve to be there. If you are a woman and are faced with the challenge of being the only woman in the room, odds are you have done a great deal of preparation to get there.

If you can learn to trust that you know your knowledge base, you are prepared, resourceful, and accurate more often than not, then you can speak from a place of knowing, rather than sounding unsure or insecure.

You may not always know what you’re walking into when you enter a room, meeting, or conference, but if you are prepared and know your stuff, it’s much easier to rely on your knowledge base than trying to “fake it until you make it.”

Shift Your Perspective and Reframe Your Mindset

Oftentimes as leaders, imposter syndrome can arise. These “clouds of doubt” that surface can send you into a downward spiral of criticism and judgment. And trust me, you’re not alone.

I’ve been there and I know the feeling well. I’ve learned that there are certain ways to combat these self-defeating thoughts and often it all starts with your mindset.

Before entering a room where I had to command a team of men, I would shift my perspective to make sure I was in the right mindset.

To reframe your thoughts to a more positive and empowering state, you can try a few things.

First, you can remember that you have been specifically selected for your position based on a set of skills and experiences, not just because of your gender.

Then, sink into all the reasons why you deserve to be there and what makes you great, especially as a female leader. What are some qualities you have that make you feel proud to be a woman in leadership? Maybe it’s your empathic nature, your ability to understand others well, or even your assertive communication style.

You can also try reframing your thoughts and instead of you being “the only woman in the room”, you can choose to look at it as being “the only in the room”.

For example, I was also the commanding officer in the room, or the only leading scientist in the room.

Instead of supporting an outdated or disempowering narrative, make sure you are actively writing the story of your merit, your strengths, and your expertise.

Though you may still encounter people who cannot see past you being a woman, you will be less susceptible to their misperceptions and biases if you develop a deep awareness of your own worth.

No one likes to be the token person in the room, so if you can shift your perspective, you’ll be able to get over that “only woman in the room” feeling and see all the other incredible ways you lead authentically.

Activate Your Confidence

While we all know what it’s like to give ourselves a motivational pep talk in the morning or right before a difficult meeting, I encourage you to activate your confidence in ways that go beyond the standard pep talk.

When you find what really activates your confidence, you’ll have a practice that ensures your body and mind are connected and primed to be calm, confident, and aware in any situation.

The first step to activating confidence is to embody confidence. And let me tell you, power positions work! This means using the power of body mechanics and biofeedback to assume a confident posture and send powerful signals to the mind and body.

Sit and stand tall, with the shoulders relaxed and the chest open. Do this especially if you are feeling insecure or lacking self-esteem. When you can find a space to be alone, take on a larger than life empowering position for a few minutes. Imagine you just won a marathon, or climbed a mountain. While this may feel ridiculous at first, the results speak for themselves.

Take it a step further and listen to a song or an album that really gets you in gear.

Whether you listen to Mozart or Metallica (or my personal favorite, Tool), develop a playlist you can use to uniquely activate your confidence before your next moment in the spotlight.

Develop a Toolbox of Communication Techniques

There are tons of communication tips, techniques, and tricks out there. The key is finding the ones you can use that are most effective for you.

And, it’s important to be aware of some “female specific” techniques that may help combat typical stereotypes.

For example, women are often inclined to end their statements on an uptone, which may be heard as a question, or lacking in confidence. By ensuring your points are clear, succinct, and end on a down tone, you work with everyone’s innate human nature to show signs of confidence.

Learning to speak well will help you to build confidence and others will begin to listen to you with admiration and respect.

Here are a few pointers that I’ve found helpful in my own leadership style:

  1. Avoid filler words like “um” and “like”

  2. Engage with the people in the room

  3. Make eye contact

  4. Project your voice

  5. If you continue to be interrupted, assertively ask to be heard

  6. Listen just as much as you speak

  7. Be prepared

  8. Contribute when necessary, not just to speak

When you develop your own toolbox of communication techniques, you’ll be able to use them as you need them and know how to calmly navigate situations, even as the only woman in the room.

Build a Support Network

If you find that you are the only woman in the room, or within an organization, make sure you are building a support network of other women, and supportive men.

Women coming together over common struggles in their professions is a uniquely powerful community to be a part of. If you can’t find a community like this, consider beginning one. Odds are, there are women just like you who would benefit from the support.

Build relationships with allies, sponsors, and mentors who are able to speak positively about you behind closed doors, clear up misconceptions, and advocate for your success.

A support network is part of your self-care as a female in business. Women feel especially supported through community encouragement, understanding, and ability to relate to others going through what they are going through.

These support networks make sure you have a life away from work that helps you to connect with others, recenter, and re-energize when you are feeling exhausted or depleted.

Make sure you find time to nurture these connections and form relationships that lift you up and help you to keep achieving great things.

Paving the Path for Other Women to Join Us

As someone who has been the “only woman” many times, know that each time you show up in this way confidently, you are paving the path to not only your own success, but the success of future women to come.

By leading authentically you are opening the door ever wider for those who will come after us.

Even though it can be hard to not stick out like a sore thumb, it’s important to remember that you are there for a purpose. And it is up to you to fulfill that purpose.

When you overcome the fears and self-doubts that arise when you find yourself as the only woman in a room, you can show up knowing that what you bring to the fight is awesome and you deserve to be there.

Not only will you be able to turn what seems like a disadvantage into your edge, you will also be able to take any “setback” along the way and turn it into a learning opportunity that will enhance your confidence and competence in the future.

By knowing your knowledge base, reframing your thoughts, using practices that embody power and confidence, developing a toolbox of communication techniques, and building your support network, you can command any room with confidence and success.

If you are interested in further developing your leadership skills, book me today so that I can share with you what I have learned along the way.


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