Being “the only one” at work—whether you’re the only woman, the only person of color, or the only of your kind in some other way—is a situation many have experienced with varying degrees of discomfort, confusion, and frustration.
Many folks in this position have felt the pressure to blend in rather than stand out. To not rock the boat or challenge the status quo for fear of losing a big career opportunity, an important contact, or even a job.
In the film, an ambitious ball of yarn named Purl starts a new job at the pointedly named B.R.O. Capital, where she quickly discovers she doesn’t quite fit in. Her co-workers gape and stare as she walks by and eagerly greets them, whisper as she works, ignore her efforts to engage in watercooler talk, and toss her input aside in meetings. After everyone leaves for the day to grab drinks without inviting her, Purl uses a bit of ingenuity to knit herself a suit in the hopes of impersonating her colleagues.
The next day, she successfully impresses them by acting like one of the guys—cracking dirty jokes and shooting off aggressive ideas in meetings. But as they’re about to leave for happy hour, this time with Purl tagging along, another ball of yarn walks in to start her day. While the rest of the team brushes her off, Purl (after a moment of inner struggle) goes over and introduces herself, lending a hand to her new co-worker and starting a chain reaction of positive change in the workplace culture.
The film was inspired by the writer and director’s real-life experience in her first job, where she believed that “in order to do the thing that I loved,” she says in a behind-the-scenes video, she had to become “one of the guys.” Her transition to Pixar, where she finally found herself working with other women, helped her to realize how much of her true personality she’d “buried and left behind” to try to fit in in the past.
Her experience isn’t unique. A 2018 Women in the Workplace report by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org found that a fifth of women report being the only woman (or one of the only women) in the groups of people they work with, and the National Center for Women & Information Technology reported that only 26% of the computing workforce in 2017 was composed of women, despite the increasing number of women learning to code, studying computer science, or pursuing STEM degrees. As a result of a lack of gender diversity, women often experience microaggressions, sexual harassment, and sexist behavior that hinders their ability to advance their career on a regular basis.
What makes art so special is that it doesn’t just make us think—it encourages us to act, too. If there’s one thing we can take away from this film, or any story we hear about people who have to work 10 times harder than the rest to feel a sense of belonging, it’s that we all have the power to make the office a more inclusive and enjoyable place to work. And a place where people can truly be themselves without judgement or fear of retaliation.
Not sure where to start? Here are a few ways:
- We can rethink how we write reference letters for women, and thus influence how they get hired and offered opportunities equal to men.
- We can consider how we talk about women in terms of their expertise and qualifications.
- We can avoid delegating “office housework” to women and people of color only.
- We can advocate for better treatment of women at companies and to close the pay gap once and for all.
- And we can become better allies to our LGBTQ colleagues by using gender-inclusive language and calling out microaggressions.
Or we can simply take a page out of Purl’s book and help out someone who’s in a position we may have been in previously. Those little actions can make a massive difference in how we treat each other at work, how we work together effectively, and how we all ultimately come out more successful. As Michelle Obama poetically states, “Thinking of changing your workplace, changing the way the world thinks, that’s big and it gets daunting and then you shrink from that. So start with what you can control. And that’s you first.”