25 September 2023

The invisible woman: Women leaders must step out of the shadows

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Myra White* says women must learn how to generate the positive visibility that men use to build the types of power that ultimately lead to top jobs.

Photo: David Werbrouck

Women in the MeToo movement have made it clear in the past few months that women are not sex toys that men can fondle at will.

This type of visibility, however, is not going to catapult women into top level leadership positions that will give them the power to make significant changes to the current male-dominated culture.

As the Trump Administration in the US and men in other positions of power demonstrate on a daily basis, men are not about to cede their power to women or even acknowledge their personal transgressions.

Moreover, when one man falls, men just bring in another man to take his place.

For women to acquire top-level leadership positions that give them the power to hold men accountable and change how the system operates, they need to be more strategic.

They must learn how to generate the positive visibility that men use to build the types of power that ultimately lead to top jobs.

This is not to diminish the important advances women have made in their fight for equality during the past 50 years.

Certainly, there are more opportunities for women today but as anyone who has played on competitive sports teams knows, just being on the roster doesn’t make you a player.

Unless you step up and show the coach that you can be a star, you will remain on the bench, relatively invisible.

This can be seen in places like the in the US Congress where 20 per cent of the members are now women but most remain invisible.

If asked, the average American could name only a few of these women.

Moreover, this female invisibility problem doesn’t stop here.

It permeates every arena.

In my efforts to expand my research on how people become leaders to include more women, the majority of women I contact for interviews are always too busy and can’t find time in their schedules.

In contrast, men are always available for interviews.

They can’t wait to get started and welcome the potential visibility involved in being featured in my books and writing.

This tendency for women to remain invisible is ubiquitous.

Once you start paying attention you will see it everywhere.

Women students speak less in class than men.

In professional and business meetings, women tend to remain silent while men dominate.

At a recent talk by a woman at Harvard Law School, when questions were asked for from the audience, three people asked questions — all men.

This is not unusual.

At most speaking events, it is only men who get up and ask questions and, at times, they start with a long self-important prelude on who they are and what they do.

So why are men masters of visibility and many women unconsciously veer away from it?

In part, it is because women are trained to be the invisible behind the scenes helpmates who, like their mothers, get things done.

One continually sees this acted out in the workplace.

Women are the ones who make sure that deadlines are met and step forward to take care of the details that men neglect.

This earns them lots of “thank yous” for a job well done while the men take the credit, and it certainly doesn’t earn women equal pay.

Margaret Thatcher, who was known for being a woman who both saved the day for the men around her and broke the glass ceiling as the UK’s first female Prime Minister, captured this best in her famous comment, “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”

The deeper reason, however, lies in the fact that, even though women know they are equal to men and often more competent, women have become accustomed to being devalued.

This happens so often and in so many ways that women rarely notice.

Recently, I was at my dentist’s office, which is run by women.

On the wall in the waiting area were posted the pictures of children who are patients.

As I looked at their smiling faces, I thought, why are you posting the children’s pictures?

It is their mothers who should be on this wall.

They are the ones who make sure that their children regularly go to the dentist and then faithfully take them there.

They calm their anxieties and deal with their temper tantrums when they don’t want to go.

They are the real heroes here.

Women need to start recognising and owning the value that they add to organisations.

They should no longer settle for being part of the behind the scenes cast that helps men excel.

Instead, they need to actively pursue top leadership positions in the same way that men do.

One way to get these positions is for women to make themselves and their talents more visible.

They must step out of the shadows and start strategically showcasing their abilities and contributions in ways that clearly signal to those in power that they have what it takes to command top leadership positions.

* Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organisational behaviour at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School.

This article first appeared at www.management-issues.com.

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