The invisible woman

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Mar 21 2018 by Myra White Print This Article

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 United States 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 doesnít

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 United States Congress where 20% 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 doesnít 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

canít find time in their schedules. In contrast, men are always available for interviews. They

canít 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 ďthank youísĒ for a job well done while the men

take the credit, and it certainly doesnít 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 UKís first female prime minister, captured this best in her famous comment, ďIf

you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.Ē

The deeper reason, however, lies in the fact that, even though women know that 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

dentistís office, which is run by women. On the wall in the waiting area were posted the

pictures of the children who are patients. As I looked at their smiling faces, I thought why are

you posting the childrenís 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 donít

want to go. They are the real heroes here.

Women need to start recognizing and owning the value that they add to organizations. 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.

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About The Author

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.