40% of women in tech and senior roles are "Only's". Here's what engineering managers need to know.

On Tuesday, LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company released Women in the Workplace 2018, the fourth annual study of women in corporate America. (Read the full report at womenintheworkplace.com.) The survey involved 279 companies employing more than 13 million people, and an additional 64,000 employees were surveyed on their workplace experiences. The general findings were that - for the 4th year in a row - we have made no substantial progress in diversity representation in Corporate America.

For the purposes of this study, having "representation" means that you would expect managers to be representative of the general worker population. For example, if you have 20% female workers, you'd expect 20% female managers at all levels. Same goes for racial diversity.

For engineers, the report notes that 40% of women in senior and technical roles are "only's," defined as women who are often the only one on their team or in the room. According to the survey, the "only's" are both more ambitious and face more challenges than other women. It's even worse for women of color, all of which contributes to the overall attrition rate in engineering. (For a quick explanation about "only's" that doesn't require you to read the full report, see also: Female workplace representation stalls | LinkedIn.)

Only’s are 1.5 times more likely to consider leaving a profession. Because they are the only one, biases against them tend to be more pronounced. Only’s also can be seen as a stand-in for all women, as opposed to having their own individual successes or failures.

Only’s are twice as likely to report:

1. That they’ve had to prove their competence more than others do.

2. That they’ve been mistaken for someone junior, or a non-technical staff member.

3. That they’ve been both excluded and more closely watched/scrutinized than coworkers in similar-level roles.

4. That they are very ambitious; half reported wanting the top position at their firms, and 80% expressed a desire to be promoted.

Another key finding of the report is that the underrepresentation of women in leadership roles cannot be explained by attrition. Most surveyed indicated they expected to continue to work to retirement. The percentage of women leaving careers to support their families is very small.

Source: 2018 LeanIn.org and McKinsey Women in The Workplace Study

Source: 2018 LeanIn.org and McKinsey Women in The Workplace Study

And, according to the report:

“Women are doing their part. For more than 30 years, they’ve been earning more bachelor’s degrees than men. They’re asking for promotions and negotiating salaries at the same rates as men. And contrary to conventional wisdom, they are staying in the workforce at the same rate as men.”


The first promotion of a staff member to manager creates a critical talent pipeline problem that can’t be made up at senior levels. Women are less likely to be hired into manager roles and significantly less likely to be promoted into one. Specifically, the data shows that for every 100 male managers there are only 79 female managers. Yet, at entry level, it is approximately 50/50 (this is all women, not just engineers).

Source: 2018 LeanIn.org and McKinsey Women in The Workplace Study

Source: 2018 LeanIn.org and McKinsey Women in The Workplace Study

What is causing the gap? Performance bias plays a role. Research indicates that we tend to overestimate men’s performance and underestimate women’s. From a practical standpoint, this means that women are often hired and promoted based on past track record, while men are hired and promoted based on their potential. This is especially critical in the early years of a career, when neither gender has a track record.

Additionally, the data shows that women receive less support from their managers. At the same time, there is a strong correlation between high levels of manager support and promotability. This is especially true at critical areas such as promoting staff members’ work or ideas to others and helping women learn to navigate organizational politics. 

 Unconscious bias and racism, or microaggressions, persist. Specific examples include having your judgement questioned in your area of expertise, needing to provide more evidence of your competence than others, and being assumed to be in a lower role than you are.  

Source: 2018 LeanIn.org and McKinsey Women in The Workplace Study

Source: 2018 LeanIn.org and McKinsey Women in The Workplace Study

Sexual harassment is also unfortunately common. The report singles out technical fields, in which 45% of women reported having been sexually harassed. For senior level roles, this number increases to 55% for all women. 98% of companies in the survey had a clear policy that sexual harassment would not be tolerated, yet there is clearly a gap in reporting of harassment and enforcement of these policies. This can be partially explained by the fact that 70% of men believe claims of harassment would be fairly investigated, while only 52% of women believe the same.


How can engineering managers – and especially a new or mid-level ones who may not have much control over the firm’s processes - help solve this problem? The report lays out 6 recommendations, many of which are targeted at very large firms or senior leaders. Here, we will focus on the 4 things every engineering manager can do, regardless of their level.

1.     Every performance review you give should have measurable, concrete metrics and goals. Reviews should not be are based on “potential”, “likeability”, or other non-measureable attributes. A “gut feeling” - without any metrics to back it up - that someone is better or worse for a possible promotion or raise is a red flag that unconscious bias is at play. This is true regardless of if the manager is a man or woman.

2.     Measure and equalize the amount of technical versus non-technical support you are providing to your direct reports. The report shows that women tend to receive much less non-technical support than men, yet non-technical skills are critical to earning a leadership role. If the women aren’t coming to things like happy hours, lunch outings, golf scrambles, or other events outside of work, that’s a strong signal that support levels are unequal. As a manager, it’s important to provide this non-technical support and feedback, even if you need to schedule it into the workday to create more parity.

3.     Make it explicitly clear that sexual harassment will not be tolerated, is to be reported immediately, and that claims will be investigated quickly and taken seriously.    

4.     Challenge biased language and behavior when you see it. Classic examples include “pushy” or “aggressive” being used to describe an ambitious woman, while “go-getter” or “leader” is used to describe the exact same behavior in a man. Biases also show up commonly in the descriptions of male and female communication styles, for example a collaborative woman is “undecisive”, while the same behavior in a man is being “inclusive”. When employees have a manager who regularly challenges bias,  they are more likely to think that everyone has an equal chance to advance at work—and they are less likely to think their gender has played a role in their missing out on a raise or promotion. Biased behavior and language can be subtle, so the report recommends unconscious bias training as a route to more fair, objective decision-making.


We've all worked on teams with an "only", or you yourself may be one. Please share examples of things you have done (or could do) to support an "only." If you are an "only", please share a time when someone else supported you, or alternately what we as community can do better to support you.


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