I recently came across the work of Ari Seth Cohen, who has taken portraits of stylish, real women out and about in the streets of New York. Although “real”, these women are by no means ordinary; they are all of advanced years, hence the title of Ari’s blog: Advanced Style. http://advancedstyle.blogspot.co.uk/
At an age when much of society might expect them to be fading decently into the background, these women are daringly, explosively visible! They inspire us all to grasp life and make the most of it, enjoying every minute.
I’m impressed by the uniquely feminine way they achieve this. By taking such pains with their appearance they aren’t simply dressing beautifully, they are making a statement about their attitude to life, in a spectacular way. Who would have thought a necklace or a pair of gloves could have such significance, in the modern age?
These women certainly ‘do it differently’. Perhaps it’s not so easy for a younger woman to make such a big impact by dressing superbly (and I’m certainly not able to supply fashion advice!). But in the modern age, I do believe there’s a difference in how women present themselves, particularly at work, and how they address certain tasks, from how their male counterparts might do so.
For instance, one of my male colleagues is fantastic at getting his message across in no uncertain terms – he’s colourful, articulate and forceful. In complete contrast, a female colleague tends to favour the quieter “drip, drip, drip” approach to a problem, wearing it away with persistence, asking subtle questions. Both possess steely determination, and aren’t afraid to take an unpopular call, if it’s the right way forward. Perhaps the differences between these two particular individuals are more to do with personality than with gender, but they serve as an example of how men and women can approach things from a different angle.
These diverse approaches to problem solving each work better in some scenarios than others. Both have their time and place, and we should celebrate them both. Complementary ways of working lend themselves well to creating a great team, just as differing colours combine to form a rainbow – differences melding into a whole.
Is appreciating these Mars/Venus type differences the key to success? I believe it can be, if it means we can realise and acknowledge that success can be achieved in different ways – and that the way you would carry out a task isn’t the only way to do it, maybe not even the best way.
SHOUTING LOUDLY CAN BE HIGHLY EFFECTIVE.
Sometimes, a whisper can get even more attention.
In a previous blog (see “The Superpower I Didn’t Want”) I wrote about becoming invisible. That can happen in everyday life, but it can happen at work too.
I’m lucky enough to work for a company with “fairness” running through its centre like a stick of rock, and yet there still aren’t too many women at the top, and sometimes I wonder why. When there isn’t discrimination squashing women down, why aren’t they rising up the ranks? Is it something we do?
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to go to a fantastic 2-day conference with work. The subject of glass ceilings came up in the informal discussions of the first day, and I found myself in the privileged position of debating the topic with some of the smartest and most successful women I’ve ever met.
Unfortunately I had to leave that conference early due to an emergency at home, and there was no doubt in my mind that it was the right, and only thing to do. I’m lucky enough to have solid and real support at work in that kind of circumstance, but from a less supportive company it would have been a great excuse to treat those couple of days of invisibility to slide the glass ceiling into place, and leave me banging on it for ever more.
Of course, a problem at home isn’t exclusive to women, and it isn’t the only reason why a woman might choose to put her job aside for a while, but it serves as an example of how work can sometimes take second place to a life outside. In my opinion that’s just as it should be, but I can also kind of understand that, for those driven, passionate individuals who have succeeded in the workplace at the highest levels, to see a promising person (who might be a woman) pass up an opportunity must be incredibly frustrating. And that surely must lead to the temptation to give the next opportunity to the next promising person (who might not be a woman). See how that glass ceiling is closing in?
But it’s not all double glazing and toughened windscreens. What if we could metapohorically turn that glass ceiling into a mirror, to reflect ourselves back as others see us? What if we could use that vision to decide if we like what we see, where we want to go, and then work out how we can change things if we want to?
In my last blog (see “Superpowers cont’d”) I wrote about glass ceilings. What if you could turn them into a looking glass, to reflect yourself, your visions and your aims? That would help solve your invisibility problem! Just maybe, it would help us all work out how to break through that glass ceiling of a looking glass, and into a world of adventure beyond, just like Alice.
Here are my tips for how:
1. Use that mirror to reflect back and understand your priorities and what works for you. Grow to know the kinds of meetings you can’t ever miss, or the kinds of home commitments you won’t ever give up. Make sure the priority calls you make are right for you.
2. Decide, deal with it, and move on – if you’re worrying about the place you aren’t, then you might as well be there, because you’re no use where you are. Sitting at home worrying about how the client meeting went won’t help your colleagues impress, and you’ve taken time out to help your sick child, so help them. Harsh? Yes. Simple? Yes. Easy? Oh, no.
3. Plan in advance how you’ll deal with conflict situations. For example, if you have kids, the odds are you’ll need to look after a sick one every now and then. Find a neighbour who might help out once in a while; get the kit to work from home during the patient’s naps.
4. Negotiate around your situation. You can bet the crisis point will come at work and at home on the same day. If the report needs doing by 5 – see whether working in the evening and getting it done by 9am the following day will do just as well.
5. Realise that most of the time it’s a juggling act, and you won’t get it right every time. Learn from the bad days and use those lessons when you go back to step 3 (planning).
6. Be kind to yourself – although we may have some superhero attributes, we are really human beings underneath!
Invisibility is supposed to be a superpower – just ask The Invisible Man – and anyone would think that developing a superpower would be a Good Thing. Some superheroes take a while to come around to the idea, but they tend to like their powers in the end – maybe because that’s what they are – “powers”, strengths, tools that can be used for good.
My superpower is anything but that though – it’s a negative, a fading out, a nothingness.
I first realised I had become invisible around the time I turned 40. It had been gradually wearing on for some time and, like any self-respecting fledgling superhero, I didn’t realise its strength or how far-reaching it could be. Around that landmark birthday it hit me with full force, like it or not, in one of those everyday transactions in life that turn out to be pivotal moments. Mine was in a shop, and the assistant serving me wasn’t interested – not because they seemed bored, or busy, or stressed by something else, but just because it was like I wasn’t there.
Now without getting actuarial on you, there’s a reasonable statistical chance that I’m only about half way through my life, and I’m not prepared to slip past everyone’s notice for the rest of it! I began thinking about the times when women, in particular, tend to become invisible. It turns out it’s not a new phenomenon.
In the classic novel “Gone with the Wind”, feisty & colourful Scarlett O’Hara bemoans the lack of opportunities to socialise and to dance on becoming first a wife, and then a widow – dressing in black and not being the centre of attention don’t suit her.
My own grandmother trained long and hard to become a teacher in the 1920’s, and disappeared from the classroom as she gave it all up without a qualm to become a wife.
And much more recently, the end of Selina Scott’s news-reading role literally reduced her visibility to the nation as she disappeared from TV screens, reflecting the modern trend for women of a certain age to fade into the background.
All very different factual and fictional examples of how a change in a woman’s life also changes the way people see her…. or don’t see her at all.
Now some people will be happy with the situation, and that’s fine. But what if they aren’t? I got to wondering about the various strategies women use to get themselves noticed, in good ways and bad, in the modern world. Which led me on to wondering what choices, say, a Victorian or Edwardian woman would have had if they wanted to rebel against invisibility.
And that’s one of the themes I’m exploring as I write my book.