"You can’t be what you can’t see” - that’s how it goes, right? Maybe.
We often get asked what it is we mean by visibility. One way of tackling it is by looking instead at invisibility - because invisibility is a potent but often silent impediment to the urgent shifts we need in so many contexts.
When you look at the current concentration of power, in every space, sphere and country in the world, it’s in the hands of a line-up of mostly white, nearly always privileged, mostly male people - most of them in decision-making positions in large public and private institutions. But as the research shows, we all lose out when diverse voices and decision-makers are excluded. So where do visibility and invisibility come in?
To accelerate change we need the people (and organisations) who are missing from that line-up of current influence to be visible to make their contribution to positive social, environmental and economic change. This is our focus.
Gender equality is one area, along with sustainability, human rights, diversity + inclusion and health, where we’re seeking to help elevate a new breed of leader into spaces of influence, as a lever for change. That includes helping purpose-driven organisations to use their influence impactfully, through communications strategy, and to elevate diverse voices into leadership spaces, through visibility and leadership programs and coaching.
To that end, in a recent survey, we asked 183 male and female Australian public sector leaders to name the three visible leaders they admired most.
Only 17% of leaders identified by the men, as those they admired most, were women.
Only one person of colour was named by the men: Barack Obama.
By contrast, 56% of leaders identified by the women, as those they admired most, were women.
That means the women were three times more likely to identify a woman as a leader they admire than the men.
The women surveyed were also 12 times more likely to name a person of colour; specifically, a woman of colour.
The women were three times more likely to name LGBTQI+ leaders and those with a disability in the list of those they admired.
The upshot: the women surveyed saw and valued women leaders, and the women saw and valued diversity in leadership, at a much larger scale than the men. We see this in our work more widely - and yet sadly, this does not translate to gender equality.
The men were less likely than the women to see and value diversity in leadership. We know this is a systemic issue that goes way beyond the small sample of leaders we surveyed and is part of social conditioning. If the men did see women and diverse leaders more readily, we know that we would see systemic change in the representation of women and minority groups in positions of leadership.
We also see close-up how this invisibility affects how women feel about themselves.
We have worked in depth with more than 3,000 women over the past five years, from more than 50 countries, supporting them to build influence to widen and deepen their impact. We’ve asked nearly every one of those women to share their most private beliefs about visibility; their fears about being seen or heard, and what gets in the way.
Some of these women are the most high-profile influencers in the country. Others are leaders of the future you haven’t heard of yet. Some are white and privileged; others come from refugee backgrounds; are women of colour or hail from the Global South.
Despite the diversity, we could count on one hand the number of women who felt completely safe, completely seen and unafraid of stepping into visible leadership. Some of their most private thoughts and fears are shared above.
It’s not people shrinking back because they have a mystifying lack of confidence, or lack the skills to lead.
Invisibility is the organised and entrenched systems of discrimination, bias, colonialism, stereotyping, minimising and violence - social and physical - that gives women the sense that there’s something wrong with THEM.
Read through the quotes above and come to know these invisible women. Then open your eyes, look around you; see that they are everywhere. They and we need you to make space for them and others excluded from decision-making spaces, to shine a light on their talents and welcome their voices into the world.
If you want or need our help, in your organisation or for yourself or your team, in helping either to elevate others into, or step yourself into that line-up of influential leaders and organisations, speak to us.