Lonely at Work? You’re Not Alone

Liz ODonnell headshot 3x3-2By Liz O’Donnell

We often hear that for c-level executives, it’s lonely at the top. Well, it can be lonely on the way to the top too, and feeling isolated can be a major career hurdle for many women pursuing professional goals.

Several years ago I was working as the head of marketing for a family-owned business run by three brothers. I was the only female vice president. The head of sales and I, in order to foster a strong relationship between our two departments, shared an office. At least twice a week, one of the owners would stop by and ask my officemate, a man, to go to lunch. I was never invited.

I knew that because I was a woman, I would never forge the kind of casual, tight relationship with ownership that my peer did, and that I was missing out on the informal bonding and decision-making that took place across a lunch table instead of a conference table. On top of that, I was lonely. The only other women in the company were administrative staff, part-time consultants, and women who reported to me. I occasionally had lunch with my team, but they often didn’t want to hang out with their boss on their lunch break and despite my solid working relationship with my officemate, I experienced little camaraderie with my male peers and my female subordinates. I thought what I was experiencing was unique to the company, but in fact, many women, as our numbers dwindle on the way to the corner office, experience the same feeling of isolation at work.

Women Leaving is Bad for Women
Just look at the legal profession. According to the American Bar Association, despite women earning close to 50 percent of law degrees and representing approximately 45 percent of associate positions in private practices, only about 20 percent of women are at the partner level. That attrition doesn’t just impact women’s job satisfaction; it impacts their bank accounts.

While writing my book Mogul, Mom & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman, I met several women who expressed concern about the lack of female peers at work. One woman, an attorney named Holli, had seen many of her female colleagues drop out of the workforce – and their absence impacted her career. Not only was she lonely as one of the few women in her firm and her practice area, but she was concerned about how the situation was affecting her ability to be a rainmaker.

“It’s a pretty isolated place,” Holli told me. “I have fewer contacts to network with and fewer close friends who are truly in the same situation. What’s so important is the business generation. It’s a numbers game in the sense that women leaving the field results in fewer close professional contacts for their female colleagues, which is likely to result in fewer referral sources over the long term. I have very few law school friends who are still practicing law—and I think that is a problem.”

Holli says feelings of isolation are a factor in some women’s decisions to leave work, if they are in a position to do so.

“On some level, they think to themselves, ‘The next tier up is all guys, so why do I think I would make it there?’” Holli said. What feels like an individual decision can have a wider effect. “The problem of women leaving the workplace… yes, it leaves the families in an economically vulnerable position. And, collectively, it’s really problematic for those of us who have to keep working, who are surviving and hopefully thriving with fewer and fewer women around,” she said.

Holli tried women’s networking groups but she found the events and groups to be ineffectual because so many of the women who attended were not fully engaged in the workplace. Some were looking to reenter the workforce or to change career paths, and the women who attended for these reasons were unlikely to be decision makers.

The Networking Gap
Networking with men is more complicated than it might sound.

“What that really means is going out to networking events or professional activities, meeting a bunch of 40 or 50-year-old guys, developing relationships with these men that rise to a level where they trust you, view you as competent, and view you as a professional, and doing all of this at night, during non-working hours,” Holli said. “And by the way, your prospective contacts and business sources are all married and have families of their own and may have their own discomfort with socializing across gender lines in certain settings. There is no doubt in my mind that it is far easier for women to develop close and meaningful professional relationships with other women. But, if there are fewer women in the workplace with whom to develop those relationships, you have to find a way to compensate—and it is not easy.”

Luckily, there are ways women, and their employers can compensate for the female networking gap.

Ask the men to lunch: Lunch is usually a safe environment for building professional relationships, but women can’t wait to be invited. Perhaps I could have found a place at the table years ago if I had asked the owner and the head of sales to lunch rather than hoping they would one day ask me.

Network outside your organization and your industry: Today, even though I work with plenty of female peers, I try to have lunch or a drink at least twice a month with a woman outside my own organization and even my own industry. Our day-to-day jobs may be different, but usually our experiences, challenges, ideas, and even contacts, are all relevant to each other.

Use social media: Online networks can be a great way for women to build far-reaching connections on their own schedules.

Lastly, encourage group networking events: In companies where employees are required to entertain clients, employers can encourage group activities by purchasing four or six tickets instead of two to sporting and entertainment events. Or they can make it policy that teams, rather than individuals, attend dinners and out-of-office events.

Until corporate America makes the structural changes needed to keep more women at work, we need to recognize that when women leave the workforce, it impacts the women who stay behind as much as it impacts the ones who go. With a few subtle changes to how we interact at work, we can minimize the impact and build stronger networks for both women and men.

Liz O’Donnell is the author of MOGUL, MOM & MAID: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman (Bibliomotion; 2013). She is a Senior Vice President and General Manager at Double Forte, a public relations firm. You can follow her on Twitter @hello_ladies.

1 Response

  1. Isolation is a source of anxiety for many women as they move from middle management into the “start” position for more senior management. Trying to reconcile the “leadership identity” that a company wants with the “gender identify” that it expects from women is a source of further isolation. I agree that building relationships with your male peers is critical to moving forward and easing the feelings of isolation. I also think that the cycle of isolation will repeat itself as you continue up the ladder until we reach a critical mass women throughout the leadership pipeline. Thanks for this helpful post, Liz.