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  1. Blog
  2. Networking

Are You 'The Only' at Work? Here's How to Broaden Your Network

When being "one of the guys" won't cut it

Woman smiling at camera
Photo courtesy of Luis Villasmil

So often, women find themselves at workplaces in which they are a token, the “only one” who holds a certain identity. Black women, indigenous women, other women of color, disabled women, trans women, queer women, and those holding various marginalized identities—so many people experience this alienation in their workplace. This lack of visibility and community, and the implicit demand to assimilate in order to be accepted, is hugely draining and isolating. 

This truth is deeply rooted in our country’s history. Since the founding of the United States, there have been legal, social, and economic systems in place that value the lives of white property-owning men over everyone else. From slavery to Black Codes, from redlining to ongoing differential enforcement of the law, Black Americans have been forcibly exploited and excluded from gaining generational wealth and power. Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and Asian Americans have experienced countless attacks on their communities, rights, and ability to achieve economic security during the history of the nation, a history that cannot be simply glossed over and forgotten. And it was only in 2020 that the Supreme Court ruled that it is illegal to fire a worker for being gay or transgender.

Read more: 10 Funny, Heartwarming & Cutting Tweets Celebrating LGBTQ Employment Rights

That is to say, professional workplaces are so often so full of white people—and white men specifically—because that’s who this country was built for. White property-owning men were set up by the Founding Fathers to accumulate wealth and hold positions of power. And while that’s changing in some places, it’s not happening quickly enough.

“If you think about how power is amassed and held by certain people—white men, straight white men, generally—over time, it makes sense. Power doesn’t want to give up power. They would have to act against self-interest to do that, that’s why it so rarely happens,” says Cynthia Pong, a feminist career coach for women of color.

Pong says it makes sense that white male-centered organizations have token gestures of inviting in one person from a marginalized group, so the group becomes less obviously uniform.

So many women of color find themselves at workplaces where there’s no one else with a shared identity. Clearly, structural change is needed to redistribute power and money to groups—especially Black women—that have been exploited and excluded for generations. 

And while we work toward that change in and out of the workplace, it’s important for women of all backgrounds to build community and connections with others who share an identity.

Building connections with other women

Pong recommends women of color, as well as women with other marginalized identities, such as queer or disabled women, find mentors who can give advice, help strategize, and serve as a sounding board. And Pong says often the best mentors are probably not at the company where you work now.

“It’s smarter to find mentors, sponsors, and champions outside of your organization, and even outside of your industry,” Pong says. “This cross-pollinates in a way that you wouldn’t get from someone who’s been steeped in your field for a long time, because they’re not in the same echo chamber.”

Especially in a time of physical distancing during COVID-19, when in-person networking events and conferences are out of the question, it’s hard to casually connect with professionals you admire. 

Pong recommends finding mentors through two methods: individually reaching out or joining identity-based professional networks.

Read more: Ask a Recruiter: How Can I Make the Most of Virtual Networking During the Pandemic?

Individually connecting

If someone’s talk at a recent webinar really inspired you, or if there’s someone in your industry’s Slack that you admire, reach out. Pong says you can invite them to connect on LinkedIn, email, or direct message on other social media platforms.

The key is, when connecting this way, understand that the person may not respond. So, don’t lay all your hopes on a specific mentor who may have an inbox full to the brim with message requests. Send your message and keep moving and thinking about others who you’d like to learn from!

How to write that email, step by step

Subject line: Include how you know of them in the subject line. More on subject lines in this recent InHerSight piece

Example: Heard you speak at the small business panel, would love to connect.

Body: Include how you know them/know about them, and add one specific example.

Example: I loved hearing you talk at the webinar about work/life balance, and your tip about setting time limits for apps was really helpful!

Then, add a few sentences about yourself and your career. Pong says one or two sentences should do the trick. You want to keep the email short and sweet.

Ask: A crucial and often missing step, Pong says, is a specific and clear ask. What do you want from this person? A brief phone call? A connection to a specific resource?

Example: Would you be available for a 15-minute phone call within the next few weeks to talk about the field of marketing? 

“A lot of people don’t want to be intrusive or presumptuous, but it’s actually a mental strain on the person receiving the email if you don’t make a clear ask,” Pong says.

Follow-up: Make sure you’ve followed the person on social media, and thanked them for their time. Pong resists the tendency to see networking as extractive, instead thinking about the practice as one that builds a stronger community and is mutually supportive, especially for women of color.

Getting plugged into networks

It can be crucial to have networks of support with people with shared marginalized identities. To find these, first ask around, reaching out to people you know with shared identities—within your field or more broadly. You can search online or even post on Twitter about looking for such a group, Pong says.

Some groups for women of color, like The Well (for Black women) and Ethel’s Club (for people of color), require paid memberships. Other online spaces, like industry-specific, identity-focused Facebook groups and listservs, often don’t. Both have their benefits.

“Paid groups may be providing more structure and resources and workshops. Also, when we pay for something we tend to be more accountable to it, and committed to getting value out of it,” Pong says.

But if you’re not able to budget for paying monthly or annual membership fees, there are virtual spaces available free of charge that are also helpful for building connections across a shared identity. And all you need is an internet connection.

So, when looking to make connections with other women of color at work, think outside of the company. There’s a lot of people out there.

“It’s totally okay to go outside of your organization,” Pong says. “Find people who understand what it’s like to have your lived professional experience. They can help you in all kinds of different ways, and will give you advice that’s applicable for you, since they know what it’s like to be you.”

About our source

Cynthia Pong, JD, is a feminist career strategist, speaker, and author of Don't Stay in Your Lane: The Career Change Guide for Women of Color. A LinkedIn Top Voice for Job Search and Career, she is frequently sought out to provide highly relevant, super applicable, easy-to-understand career advice specifically for women of color.

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