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The Experience of 'onliness'

Annie Cooper on the experience of 'onliness' and her new leadership project

I recently read an article in the McKinsey Quarterly that discusses the feelings and experiences of those people who find themselves in an ‘only’ position; the only one of a type in the workplace. It is most obvious in terms of gender; wander into a health tech organisation and look around and notice the gender mix – what do you see? But it is inevitably also true of other minority groups such as people of colour.

I have worked in healthcare IT for more than a decade and on many occasions, I have found myself not only to be the only nurse in the room but the only woman. Other biases are evident too. The feeling of being the only one is uncomfortable, but it also affects the way people behave. This situation is often referred to as ‘onliness’. It is recognised in studies like the work done by HIMSS Europe; women report that they are more likely to experience discrimination in the workplace than men. Another study shows the odds are higher still when women find themselves alone in a group of men, in other words, in a position of ‘onliness’. They are more likely to have their judgment questioned than women working in more balanced teams. It's not an easy story to read.

Maybe things are improving but the evidence says we still had a long way to go. Last year’s survey by HIMSS Europe worryingly points to issues such as the contribution of women not being recognised and unequal treatment.

This is surprising really; the tech industry is ideally placed as a new and emergent modern discipline to step up and create a new more balanced environment. We are a relatively youthful sector and you would imagine that, as a result, we are less steeped in the historical cultures of the past. I have met lots of fab women of all ages and their passion and potential shines through.

So, does it matter? Am I overreacting? Why would you want to ensure that teams (including executive teams) are more diverse and women and people of colour are better represented?

According to a study by Forbes in 2017, diverse teams make better decisions. In fact, the evidence in the study showed that diverse teams make 60% better decisions.  We need to include more diversity in decision making in organisations. We need to avoid onliness and make sure women work in environments where they have the best chance of thriving.

A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean.

The evidence points to the fact that a single female board member alone will improve the performance of the board and positively affect the bottom line but increase diversity beyond this and performance improves even further.

Women have a great range of skills and are particularly known for their people and team making skills, but they can be underconfident stepping up into board level roles where there are fewer role models or mentors to support them. They may be less likely to have negotiation skills that they use for their own career progression. They are likely to ask for less. Women may also undervalue their own skills and talents and underestimate their own power. It's also hard to operate in cultures that favour men and difficult to change them if you are in the minority.

It’s time to tackle these issues and support women and other underrepresented groups to make the contribution they can make, and in doing so improving the culture of the organisations we work in. We are ideally placed to do so; we are different in many ways to the rest of the health sector.  The health tech sector is uniquely positioned to build on the youthful modern sector we operate in, to create positive diverse cultures. The right culture attracts the right people, which in turn create the best results. Avoiding ‘onliness’ and supporting those people who might be underrepresented to succeed seems like an obvious choice.

The Digital Women’s Leadership Programme is for women who have the appetite to do more and want to progress. It's for those people who want to help to change the culture that allows ‘onliness’ and to support women to develop their talents and skills and put them to the most effective use.

If you are interested in learning more, please visit or contact Annie on


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