All the Single Ladies

The bright white light of the giant video screen bounced off roughly 40 similarly-balding heads, like three dozen eggs lined up waiting to hatch. It is almost the Q&A portion of the young scholar’s research and she is prepared for any question about the methodology of her modeling approach, the literature review, or the policy implications. She is so proud of her paper on the economic tradeoffs of breast milk pumping for low-wage working moms–she got a blowout with the little bit of fun money she makes on the weekends bartending. Her weeks are reserved for her PhD studies, her extra research and teaching assistant gigs, and figuring out how to make it on the bus on time with three kids under 6 and deposit them at three different daycare centers on campus. Her nights are reserved for staring at the ceiling wondering whether her financial aid check will drop in time to get some groceries.

This young woman finishes her presentation, takes a deep breath and opens it up for questions. The men all fidget. She panics. The worst feeling in the world, when presenting in this situation, is when people have NO questions. Finally, a man near the front slowly raises his hand. With an embarrassed expression, he asks:

“What is a breast pump?”

I love feeling exclusive. I love a VIP, velvet rope situation. I love a STANCHION. So I was especially excited to get a sneak peek at the new data on this Diversity Dashboard, ahead of public consumption. Immediately, I started to try and find the “only” women. I wanted to find places where out of all the top government officials in the county, there was only one woman. I don’t know why this was my first instinct; I’m generally an optimistic person. But something drew me to the drill-down, as if I wanted to say:

“I see you, Washington County, Rhode Island!”

“I got you, Weber County, Utah!”

“I feel you, Tulare County, California!”

There are so many of us in this world who have been an “only” in the room. The only woman, the only person of color, the only kid with two dads, the only trans woman, the only one wearing Payless Shoe Source knockoffs… our collective list could be long. It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that so many of us are unified in being alone.

I have been the only woman in the room so many times, I couldn’t try and count if I tried. Below, some fun memories from my “only-ness” scrapbook:

  • The time I cried in my office after a male colleague (academia, business school) said in an offhand way that my kids were going to forget who I was, since I was working so late.
  • The time I cried in the bathroom after standing amongst a group of men at a conference (academia, economics) who were all expressing gratitude that their wives stayed home with the kids so that “strangers didn’t raise them”.
  • The time I couldn’t see straight from anger when a supervisor told me to dress frumpier so I would be taken seriously because “if you look too attractive, you won’t seem credible” (government).
  • The other day when a bro said my black turtleneck was giving off Elizabeth Holmes vibes and I should not wear it anymore (tech)
  • Every time I realize the tampon machine is perpetually empty (everywhere). Every time I busted in on an undergrad napping in the breast pumping rooms on campus (academia)
  • Every time I notice a visible cringe or an eye twitch when I raise my voice ever so slightly, and every time I start to internalize that and feel shrill.
  • And then, of course, there are the more difficult memories of feeling unsafe in the company of men. These are the ones you pay your therapist to deal with.

To my other onlies–I know being the only can be so lonely. I won’t use this space as a “5 ways to beat oppressive professional loneliness” article, though I am tempted to do it because I love a good self-care essay (Spoiler alert — take a bath with candles! Cry in your car alone in the Taco Bell drive-thru while you punch your steering wheel!). I will use this essay to leave you with some inspiration, though:

This is the number of girls under 18 in Washington County, RI + Weber County, UT + Tulare County, CA. (Shameless plug: I used mySidewalk and got that number in 10 seconds)

There are 115,674 pairs of eyes looking up at you, sister, and they see possibility now. You are their absolute Warrior Queen of Local Government ™! A crown doesn’t slip when a head is held high–we are the onlies today, so they don’t have to be an only tomorrow. One day, the Diversity Dashboard will be the most boring thing on the internet because we’ve achieved parity. They’ll have to sell ad space on it just to keep it afloat; the map will just be one large swath of the same color and we will all end up clicking on Katy Perry’s new alcohol-free spirits ad instead of digging into the data because there’s no story there.

Until that day comes, I hope you see that you aren’t actually alone. Perhaps we need a special only-lonely-hearts-club meetup in person eventually–somewhere out in the woods where we can be shrill and loud, or quiet and contemplative without fear of being labeled either aggressive or cold. The more I think about it, the more it feels like I’m starting a cult and this is a Wild Wild Country situation.

In case it wasn’t obvious, I was the young scholar in the sea of eggheads. I survived, and you will too. I explained how milk gets out of a body when there is no baby to do it to a room full of men who should know this, and then I defended my statistical model. Like the onlies who have come before me, I did what needed to be done while sweating through three layers of clothes. Then I found the other onlies at the conference and laughed about it all night, gathering strength in community before venturing off to the next only-adventure.

If we do this–if we take care of business, find each other in the proverbial halls of the conference center to laugh and cry–the only thing we will eventually lose is the ability to call ourselves “only”.

I can count at least 115,674 reasons why we can’t stop trying.

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Lover of politics, data viz, storytelling, tech, and oversharing. Public Health champion, Policy PhD, and Vice President @ mySidewalk.

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Dr. Sarah Marie Martin

Dr. Sarah Marie Martin

Lover of politics, data viz, storytelling, tech, and oversharing. Public Health champion, Policy PhD, and Vice President @ mySidewalk.

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