Reason #5 why women in leadership is a worthy goal: Visibility for new issues

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A fifth aspect why women can accomplish something special in leadership positions is that they often start with token status. They can use this status to bring visibility to an issue that’s important to them. I’ll explain.

A “token” is someone who carries a visible indicator that separates him or her from the rest of the people in the group. For example, a woman in a group of men, a man among a group of women, a person of with a different skin color than others in a group, someone much older or younger than the others in the group, or someone with a visible physical aid.
This visible marker influences all the interactions, at least at first. The person is regarded as “different.” That means that the person is extremely visible as a symbol for the group he or see “represents” through this marker. But the person is less visible, or not regarded by the others in the group at all, as an individual with his or her own ideas. Every activity, sentence, or idea is in the spotlight, and every mistake, too.
It’s very energy-draining to be a token, because of this incredible attention and symbolic responsibility.
There are strategies for tokens, according to research by Rosabeth Moss Kanter:

  1. To be invisible, say nothing, do nothing attention-getting, and try to blend in.
  2. To be perfect: do everything right, so that the spotlight shines only on good things.
  3. To have notoriety: bring attention to issues that matter by being visible due to the visible quality.

This third strategy means using the visibility for a cause or a theme that matters. To do so means recognizing that the attention is there, and actively to engage with that visibility. Which theme do you want to make visible if you as a person are highly visible anyway? The theme can become visible, instead of YOU having to be visible.

If we bring new people, new views, and new issues to light, we can create new societal images of leaders and we thereby expand the definition of leadership. When we expand the definition of leadership, we create even more opportunities for future innovative leaders. That’s good for men and women, when all leaders can develop themselves outside of the box, to bring their personalities and caring selves to the position.

Further Reading

  • Martin, Jennifer L. 2012. Critical Leadership: Identity and Recognition for Minority Status Bosses. In: Managing Diversity in Today’s Workplace: Strategies for Employees and Employers. Edited by Michele A. Paludi. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.
  • Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. 1993/1977. Men and Women of the Corporation. New York: Basic Books. Token Status descriptions on Pp. 216-222.

Other relevant links

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