You have just been announced as the new Chief Executive Officer, Executive Committee member or Board member of the company and you are elated. You are proud. Congratulatory messages pour in. You have worked hard for this moment. You deservedly pause and bask in the moment.

You were told in your interview that the exco/board is quite male dominated. But that the business was working hard to recruit more women into senior positions. You are a case in point. The men around the table look very proud of themselves. You feel honored. Perhaps even a big smug. You are the “first” female (enter big title here) after all. You are the beacon signaling the winds of change. You get to prove that women can do just as well as men if not better. You get to dismantle stereotypes, prejudices, and unconscious biases. First is good…right?

For women in the workplace, being “the only one” is very common. And the higher up the corporate ladder one goes, the more pervasive “the only one” phenomenon becomes. The Commission for Employment Equity shows that women make up 36,4% of senior management positions and 25,8% of top management positions.

Once the initial euphoria wears off, however, the reality of being the only one starts setting in.

You drop the children at school. You will not allow them to take school transport. You consider the school run “quality time” and “the least you can do” to keep somewhat connected to the school. You wave to other moms to ensure they know you do the school drop off. Surely that counts for something on the parenting scorecard!

You rush to the office for your 8am meeting. As you begin to outline the agenda for the meeting your phone rings. “SCHOOL” shows up on your screen. You silently debate whether to ignore the call. It’s unprofessional to take a phonecall during a meeting. Plus, you are chairing the meeting and 5 pairs of male eyes are trained expectantly on you. But, what if something is wrong with the kids? What if it is an emergency? You explain to the guys that it is the kid’s school and you will only be a minute. “Hello?”

“Hi mommy”

“Yes sweetheart. What’s wrong?”

“Mommy, I forgot that we have swimming today. Can you please drop off my swimming stuff at school? Oh, and swimming is in the next 30 minutes.”

“Ummmm. Ok” (Thinks frantically about what to do. Decide that your sweetheart will just have to miss swimming that day)

You slide back into the meeting room and resume on Agenda item no 3.

Are you being silently judged for the disruption? Are you being unprofessional?  It occurs to you that none of your male colleagues ever get school phonecalls during the workday. You push these thoughts to the recesses of your mind as you resume the meeting.


Esethu Mancotywa is the Deputy President of the BMF| Chairperson of the Women’s Empowerment Desk | CA by profession | Group CFO at Grinaker-LTA | Wife | Mother to 6 kids

One thought on “One Is Never Enough | Dismantling “The Only Woman” Phenomenon

  1. What a reality!!!

    Thank you for the article.

    This context of a working woman must be discussed in the workplace. So that the ‘silence debate’ can be eradicated, and other colleagues, males and females understand that they are working with a human being who holds multiple roles that are all important.

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