The Only Woman in the Room

Blogger: Abbie Clary, Vice President, Central Region Director, Health | Chicago, IL, USA
August 08, 2013

I wasn’t always the only woman in the room. Early in my career, I had lots of women colleagues sitting along side me late into the evening, hammering away on AutoCAD, trying to meet some unachievable deadline for our project managers and our clients. But, as I have moved through my career and moved up through the ranks, I have seen that number dwindle. Today, more often than not, I find myself alone in a room of men. 

While women’s full participation in architecture has been increasing, it has been a slow crawl. Though about 40% of architecture students are women, only about 20% of licensed architects are women, and only 10% of principals of top revenue-producing firms are women.

Women need to be bold, outspoken, intelligent, exciting, and use who we are to make our mark. That doesn’t mean we have to act like men; we need to celebrate being women and doing the same job differently than our male counterpart. For example, sorry men, but women are naturally more nurturing, and we can use that ability to approach relationship building in a different way. But mostly, we need to be confident in who we are and the value we bring to our organization. That value will be recognized. 

I attended the Women Leaders in Healthcare conference last year hosted by Modern Healthcare. One statistic that stood out to me—and I may not get the numbers exactly right —was that men will apply for a job if they meet 40% of the criteria. On the flipside, women typically will not apply for a job unless they meet 70% of the criteria. 70%!!! I think we are playing it too safe. It is time to take a risk and believe in ourselves fully.

My dad taught me a valuable lesson during my early years of learning how to downhill ski. I wasn’t getting better and I was complaining that I was being surpassed by the competition (because yes, I am fiercely competitive). He said, “Abbie, you don’t fall down enough. That tells me you are not taking risks to get better. The more you fall, the better you will get because you will learn from every fall.” So I listened and I fell A LOT. By 8th grade, I was ranked one of the top ten downhill racers in the state of Illinois. 

So what does it feel like to be the only woman in the room? It feels like great responsibility. Responsibility to represent women well. To be the spokesperson for all of us so I will not be alone for long. To make a difference. But above all, to be different. It is an opportunity to motivate all women to reach their goals and achieve greater recognition. 

So my advice is:

  • Don’t be scared or intimidated; be strong and bold. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being the strong, outspoken woman in the room. Women sometimes shrink from this responsibility in fear of being considered in a negative light, while men are celebrated for boldness and strength in character. Break that tradition. Don’t be afraid of those that will be intimidated by your approach and try to use it against you. They are not your focus. Your focus is on those that embrace it. They are the ones you should pay attention to as together you can move forward.
  • Find life balance. We cannot have it all; realize that and prioritize. Women want to be super human, super mom, super leader, super wife and be able to change our own oil. Instead, figure out what is the most important to you and do those things well. For me, a messy house and car full of garbage with happy kids and great career is okay. I embrace the messiness because I know I’m doing the most important stuff right. And do not miss your kids’ important moments for anything. Work can wait for those.
  • Be selfish about your career. Women worry a lot about what other people think: whether other people are happy, what we can do to win approval of other people. So when it comes to our career, we tend to worry about our boss and our coworkers first… and ourselves last. Flip it around. The only way to hit that life balance is to make you number one in your career. Do what is right for you and your family first, and things will fall into the right place.
  • Find a mentor, and a good one. Does it need to be a woman? Not necessarily. In fact, you should find more than one so you can get several perspectives, including from men AND women. But more important than gender, find someone you can trust and who trusts you (this is very important); someone who is available and will make the time; someone who will give the advice that is necessary, not just what you want to hear. But above all, someone who will not judge. You have to know you can speak freely, feel stupid, and ask anything you want without worry.

I would love to hear from other women the advice you would give young women (or the advice you wished you received earlier in your career).

Image—iStockphoto: danleap

Reader Comments (26)

This post has awesome advice for women professionals in all fields, not just architects. I loved the story about your dad's advice when you were skiing! One additional bit of advice I have is to be decisive. I think women are so good at consensus building that we can get hung up on getting consensus before we make a move. There comes a time to decide and move on. I think this is particularly important in a matrix organization where groups weigh in as often as not. No matter what level you are at, gather the information you need to do your job, weigh it, and then do your job

Excellent, excellent post. Brava! 


Great topic. Interesting that in two days we have a blog from Doug Wignall about millennials and today your blog about women. I don’t see any difference between the two blogs. Doug writes: “We also need to be prepared for the very different expectations and attitudes of the youngest of our workers. They are a new breed of worker. They have been shaped by…..”

Switch out a few words and really the gist of both blogs is that:

  • there are differences between people whether it is age, experience or gender
  • all people need to be motivated and mentored,
  • find something that you love to do,
  • create a work environment in which each one of us can fulfill our goals and contribute effectively.

I have found success to have a gender neutral, multi-generational and confident attitude. Sheryl Sandberg may disagree, but with this approach I was able to find work-life balance while working full time, travel extensively, raising two kids and married for nearly 25 years. Maybe lucky, but my advice to women is it is possible to have/do it all. My message to men, well that will have to be a subject for another blog.

Lovely post. I am currently at crossroads and this post couldn't have come any earlier :) thanks a ton.

One thing that has worked for me - even if you can only give 70% of your effort, make sure you give 100% to that 70%. 

Wonderful post! Thank you!!

A piece of advice I received recently that I'm just discovering the wisdom of is learning to say "no." This pairs with the "find balance" and "be selfish" bullets... I think a lot of people new to the workforce try to take on as much as they can to prove their worth. I know I did. I wanted to be known as dependable, a team play with a can-do attitude. Women, perhaps, keep this attitude longer... and for me, the result was I did many more things, but was not memorable for anything in particular, and I spent less time doing the things I wanted to do. Nothing wrong with getting a breadth of experience, but at some point it's more prudent to choose a path. 

Young professionals might not have the opportunity to say "no" right away (not in this economy...) but I think there's real wisdom in that advice. It takes strength to say no.


EXCELLENT comment about learning to say no. It took some of us until our 50s to master that--you're ahead of the curve!

Thinking you've expressed definitively some of the more nagging, instinctive thoughts we've all had at one time or another. I especially grappled with "finding balance" as the parent of four daughters whilst simultaneously feeling guilty about "being selfish" with respect to building a career. Often felt adrift and so always grateful for the many mentors who have enriched my life; both as a mother and a professional.

It's an honor to know you Abby! Very well put and a good reminder that everyone can do what they put their mind to. 


Thanks for the comments Jackie. And I could not agree more. Decisiveness is incredibly important. We cannot be afraid to make the decision!!!! Deciding by committee rarely is effective. But engaging and understanding perspectives and making an informed decision is best!

Rachel, great comments. And celebrating the differences is incredibly important. Keep doing great work for HDR!!

And, I think your comment about being memorable is spot on. If you lose the focus and take a shot gun at what you do, nothing will stand out. Definitely be memorable in your efforts.

Abbie...a very inspired and well written post!  It's evident you embody this excellent advice throughout both your professional career and personal life.  Thanks for inspiring and mentoring others (of both genders)!


That is my partner in crime - I am so proud!

Abbie - your post was spot on and very inspiring advice for all women!  Having been the "only woman in the room" for much of my career, it has been quite a challenge!  It takes tremendous confidence, diligence, strength and most of all, courage to push forth and not be afraid to push the limitations. Having your voice heard is the ultimate accomplishment.

Finding life balance has been equally as challenging. I was just saying the other day how I was going to my second job leaving work, than onto my 3rd with kids activities, housework, etc. Literally, it is a balancing act and I'm constantly challenged with taking on a bit more than I can handle!  But, I plug forth when I see my contributions are many and I've had fun along the way.

Embrace the present and celebrate!


Kelly, couldn't agree more. My good friend David Grandy says "Just muscle through it, you will make it." Sometimes that is what it takes to have so many jobs. :)

You made me cry!  I agree, everyone has strengths and weaknesses.  Its important we realize those and embrace them.  And persevere on.  Love you!!

As a Baby Boomer who is now on year 33 of her career, I count myself lucky to have worked with many amazing women along the way. In my first career in magazine publishing, about 90 percent of my colleagues were women. We started and grew successful magazines and conferences, never once really thinking about the fact that we might be women doing what may have traditionally been a “man’s job.”  In my second career here at HDR, I am greatly inspired by many women who I get to work with every day -- women in architecture and interior design, research, sustainable design, graphic design, communications, photography, operations, consulting, and marketing -- powerful and inspiring role models who push me every day to be the best I can be. Perhaps my career is unusual, but I count my blessings everyday that I have never felt like the only woman in the room.

Thank you for sharing your personal experience in a way that all of us can access Abby!! There are some universal truths here yet room for all our messy human-ness to show up. Thanks for taking the time to share.

Nice Job, Abbie!

You are an inspiration!


Fantastic post - you summarize the position, challenges, and opportunities of those of us often alone in the room deal with daily.   As an engineer, more often than not through the years I have been the only woman in the room, even early in my career.  Great bullet points to focus on and I love the skiing story; that advice is applicable no matter what the gender and I will impart it to my son.  Three cheers for the messy home/car brigade - we can't have it all at the same time (that is something that took me awhile to accept), and it will just get messy again anyway, right?


Abbie, well done, you are helping many.

The biggest roadblocks to success is as you mention: confidence that is the cause and effect of the women typically underestimating their contribution, value, acumen and performance towards the success of the Company.

Finding mentors is another

I would add to your list as follows:

* not knowing you are the smartest person in the room, this is key; all too often women have the best insights on solving a particular problem, but assume other smarter men see the obvious and will  take care of it, thus do not speak up when they should, the same goes for seeing a bad decision being made by others in the room, women will not say stop! think about the consequences!

Thanks, Katie, for bringing a much-needed alternative perspective to the subject of being "the only woman in the room," as Abbie so eloquently stated in her post. Your professionalism and vast experience in this business for so many years makes your spot-on commentary even more credible/valuable to all the readers of BLiNK. All of us (both men and women) can learn a great deal from what both you and Abbie had to say on this subject. Thanks again!

Abbie - So proud of you, girl!   Keep blazing those trails.  MaryAnn, Kim and I shared around the office...

Abbie - Thank you, Thank you.  Talking about a topic that sometimes causes male leadership to say, "psh-aw" is bold and fearless.  I worked for HDR for years and have found the best mentors of my career in fellow women there - they know what it takes to live and succeed in a male dominated profession and a male dominated firm. One of the main reasons I left HDR was because of a certain regional operation "leader's" response when asked by the regional marketing director, "Yeah, where are all of the women in architecture?". He replied, "They all get married and have babies."  I thought, "Hey everyone is entitled to their opinion".  Then I realized the same fear of change that drove this man to say that, was driving his leadership of me.  I tried to reach out, to be the confident and bold person you mentioned, but was met with a brick wall.  So, thank you for sticking with HDR and being a part of the change that they need to move from an old white boy club into the future.  Doug Wignall is just the kind of leader that HDR desperately needs.  I have full confidence that one day, when Doug's vision for HDR has been achieved, HDR will be a place that embraces the turbulence of our global market, meets it with a value proposition that has us partnered with our clients in uncertainty and delivers "whole system solutions" grounded on that notion of "failing smartly"!

Sounds like I may be older than you -- because when I first started at a large corporate firm, there were 3 women out of 160 employees and at most team meetings, I was the only woman in the room.  After 4 years, there were 7 women in the firm and we went out to lunch once a month -- the office didn't permit more than 1 woman on a team, because it was "too distracting".  As I continued in my career, I found that when I worked on Saturdays (well before there were laptop computers available) that again, I was the only woman working on weekends.  In the late 80's, I started my own consulting practice as a specifier, and because of WBE requirements, all the "small consultants" were women owned.  Typically a project had me, a female landscape architect, female geotech and of course, the interior designer was a woman.

Despite all that, I'm still here.  I am not nurturing -- it simply isn't in my nature.  I'm not more collaborative than the men around me, and I am tired of people ascribing those skills to "women".  We are allowed to be as different in personality as men are. By assuming that women have some special traits, (even if they are positive ones), we are doing the same thing as the men we complain about.

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