The Incredible Loneliness of Being an “Only”

Lisa Hsu
Lisa Hsu
Dec 30, 2017 · 5 min read

When I was a sophomore in college, I took an Electrical Engineering course which required pairs of students to mod an off-the-shelf remote controlled car into autonomously sensing and following a track of black electrical tape on the floor, going around as fast as possible. The class worked furiously on it all semester, culminating in an end-of-semester race, for which we were encouraged to invite friends to come see why we had locked ourselves in the belly of the engineering school for months.

One of my friends, a comparative literature major, attended. Afterwards, she said to me, “How do you handle it?” “Handle what?” I asked. She went on to say she walked in the room and was immediately hit with just how many guys there were in the room. “I’m not sure I could take it,” she said. I wondered…what does she mean? I barely noticed. Sure, it was probably 30-ish guys and 5-ish girls, but that was pretty good, right? I had always had a lot of male friends. I remember being completely taken aback by what she had said. Because I had not even really noticed how lopsided my courses were — or at least, I never felt uncomfortable from it. When I did notice, it made me feel special. Look at me! I’m making it! I’m doing it!

Fast forward nearly two decades, and I’m OVER it. I notice now. It’s impossible not to notice that year in, year out, I’m it. I don’t feel special anymore. I feel out of place. I feel lonely. I feel like an oddball. But I also feel a strong sense of cognitive dissonance. I’m just not that weird. So why am I the only technical woman on a project of 38 people? Why? The “just wait, the pipeline needs time” mantra is totally broken. I don’t see many women behind me, I don’t see many women ahead of me. I just see men. And then more men.

One of these things is not like the others.

For a long while, this didn’t bother me…but now, I’m just tired of it. Tired of being the only woman in the room. Tired of thinking 30 women at a 250 person conference is fantastic. Tired of going to an all hands meeting with maybe 150-ish people, and seeing fewer than 10 women in the room. I’m even the only woman at home — I have a husband and two sons (whom I love dearly). So I’m tired. And there’s no end in sight.

What I’m realizing is that I’m just fundamentally in a difficult space. The isolation is overwhelming. I can work hard at building female friend networks outside of work, but they take longer to harden because I don’t see these women at work, where I spend a lot of time, and on weekends I tend to spend time with my family. So it just takes longer to break into a mom-friend network. I can work hard at building work networks, but I’m again, just at a bit of a disadvantage. I can work against it, but…it’s still there. Recently, some friends of mine at work went deep sea fishing over Thanksgiving break. When I heard about it, that’s when it hit me — I will never go deep sea fishing with them. I just won’t. I find Vice President Pence’s stance on not ever being alone with a woman that is not his wife strange — in part because I would never be able to have any 1:1 meetings with anyone at work and thus just have a career that is dead in the water. However, I recognize that along that spectrum, I also have a line. For me, driving 3 hours over a holiday weekend, leaving my husband and children at home, to go deep sea fishing with 3 married, male colleagues is over the line. I just don’t see that happening. There is something fundamentally structural about being an “only” that I cannot personally address.

These days, it’s not enough for a man to not grab my ass for me to believe you’re a good one. “Not doing bad” is not the bar anymore. Similarly, it’s not enough that I don’t feel mistreated at my workplace. It’s not enough that no one at work has called me stupid, or belittled me, or asked me to get their coffee. It’s not enough that I have the respect of my colleagues. At some point, the isolation becomes too much. In some ways, the isolation FEELS like being mistreated. There’s a reason solitary confinement is punishment in prison. To the companies out there, I’m telling you, at some point, you will lose some some women solely because they’re sick of the isolation. Because being an “only” sucks.

So where am I? I’m at an inflection point and I’m out of patience. I’ve got to take some matters into my own hands. I may not be able to address the structural issue at work very effectively, but I’ve realized that I need to be proactive in building the networks I have, even if it’s not at my workplace. It’s going to be more work for me. I just need to accept that. But I’m also realizing that there is hope — I’ve recently needed to reach out to a lot of people as career sounding boards, and some of the women in tech I’ve met across time and space are coming through with their attention and advice. Even though I’ve only met some of them a few times, our base-level bond is stronger than you’d expect. Because we are in a sisterhood. I have a sisterhood, that, despite being scattered across the country, scattered across companies…is just there for me. And it’s not just my personal network that has come through. The Moms in Tech Facebook group has as well, and has consistently shown me that there is an incredible group of women out there, smaller than you’d want but larger than you’d think, walking the same path as I am. This sisterhood — we can connect in other ways, even if we are not on the same teams in the same companies. And it’s a beautiful thing.

I want to be in this lady network.

I began this post feeling utterly dejected, but as I’ve written it, I’ve become more optimistic. I thank the sisters who are helping me, and I will pay it forward by helping the smattering of sisters behind me. Someday, maybe, there will be 3, or even (gasp!) 4 women on my team, and we can go deep sea fishing ourselves, just us women. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

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