We grown up boomers may have come a long way, but the statistics speak of a serious threat to our visibility in everything from the boudoir to the boardroom. After the age of 40, women feel less desired by men. As one of my coaching clients puts it, "My physical presence has less of a positive charge." Not making an impact on a personal level reflects a wider cultural malaise. A film called Invisible Women, released in late 2006, headlining Susan Sarandon, protests the absence of women over 40 from the big screen. Their disproportionately small numbers in major films (73% of roles created for women go to actresses under the age of 40) means that women in this age group are disappearing from "the powerful images that influence society." Women do not fare much better in the news media where 87% of expert sound bytes are provided by men, or in business where they account for only 8% of positions from vice president and above in Fortune 500 corporations. As of this writing, only 15% of our congress "men" are actually women and this small number is hailed as a big improvement on seasons past.
The filmmakers ask, "Will the baby-boomers, the largest and most powerful generation of women that's every lived allow themselves to become invisible on the big screen?" And many of the over 40 women whom I coach have a similar concern about the more immediate arenas of their own lives. The solution begins by asking this question: What can be done to close the gap between how we women see ourselves and how we are seen - or not seen - by others.
Gender expert and best-selling author Deborah Tannen has this to say on the subject of how women (of any age) are seen. In her book Talking from Nine to Five, Dr.Tannen points out that no matter what rank women hold, "being female overrides any other clues as to position." That means that before you are perceived as manager, senator, professor, medical doctor, an authority or anything else, you are first perceived as a woman performing that particular role.
That sheds light on a story told to me by a conservatively dressed woman who attended on of my workshops: While entering the conference room to attend a high level management meeting for the first time after receiving a much prized promotion, she and her all male colleagues noticed that someone on the cleaning staff had forgotten to put away the vacuum cleaner. Without hesitation, a man who was her peer, but not her superior, turned to her with the expectation that she deal with it. When she refused, he morphed into an enemy sabotaging her efforts at every turn. This senior manager was seen as a woman first in spite of her rank and worse yet, that perception led to the biased assumption that she be the one to deal with a household appliance.
We Are All Marked Women
Tannen goes on to discuss another way in which women are unavoidably seen, interpreted and finally judged. She tells us, "There is no unmarked woman." We women, she explains, are all inevitably "marked" by the choices we make in shoe style, clothing, haircut, accessories and make-up. Males in the workplace can easily remain unmarked by adopting the standard brown or blue suit and dark, closed flat shoes. A woman has no such choice because any decision she makes â€“ even for example the decision not to wear makeup - marks or identifies her. Tannen says, "I asked myself what style we women could have adopted that would have been unmarked, like the men's. The answer was: none."
The Antidote: While it is inevitable that we are women and that we are "marked," the challenge is how to leverage both visibility givens to our advantage. Being marked women means we are seen and interpreted and ultimately evaluated in a certain way. We must skillfully manage our visual impression so it serves the image we choose to project and helps to bring about our desired ends. The trick is to re-spin the inevitability of "being a marked woman" into an empowering advantage rather than an unsettling liability. Every woman can leverage the effect to serve her own desired ends. The key point is to avoid being marked in ways you did not intend or in ways which do not serve you.
1- Your best ally here is another woman (or you could choose to work with a man) who understands the personal implication of this issue for you in all the various settings of your life. None of us ever sees ourselves as others see us -- period. This buddy serves as your mirror, a source of valuable feedback, a guide to varied and subtle solutions which you may not have envisioned on your own.
2- Avoid the freezing of your identity into one single dimension. Be fluid, witty, original, even whimsical (within self defined limits) rather than static and pigeon-holed. Be consistently unpredictable.
3- A good way to start is to experiment with an outfit, hairstyle, color or even an accessory that you consider "out of character." Feel what it's like for you to step into this new persona. See what other sides of yourself this brings out. Surprise yourself and you will start surprising others.
4- Pick a role model who knows how to do just that, perhaps a female actor who is able to morph into many different expressions of her essential self. Study your mentor and model yourself accordingly while adding something uniquely yours
5- Overcome limiting either/or's, such as, "I am either an attractive woman or a careerist to be taken seriously." It is the artful and deliberate combination of both these identities that turns on your full visibility wattage.
Susan Reimer Torn is an expert on personal social and professional visibility for women over 40. She enjoys finding original and sustainable solutions. read more about her and her work as a certified coach, author and teacher at http://www.visibilityproject.com
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