The only man or the invisible man

I believe women and other individuals from minority groups are often forced to play one of two roles, either ‘the only man’ or ‘the invisible man’. I’ve experienced both in my career and I can tell you they are energy draining, soul destroying roles. These roles don’t benefit the actor (the employee) or the show (the business). I appreciate that a performance requires a leading protagonist and a hugely talented supporting cast. I’m aware of the fact that not everyone wants to be a leading lady or take on the role of best actor, but the invisible man is not the same as being in the supporting cast and the only man is certainly not the same as the leading man.

I believe we’ve lost our way with diversity and inclusion. We seem to look at it as a recruitment exercise or a marketing campaign. The result is we may look diverse from the outside but how inclusive does it feel on the inside? Let me share with you my experience of being ‘the only man’ to help explain this a little more.

Twice now I have worked with organisations in The Netherlands who wanted to develop their international educational programs. I came on board to help them develop English curricula and they built teams of International lecturers to deliver the programs. The language of the program was English, which meant meetings and teaching was all conducted in English. Eventually the international staff were replaced with Dutch staff and slowly the culture changed. Rather than speaking English because that was the language of the programme, people would check to see if I was in the room and I became the reason the meeting was conducted in English – oh Donna’s here we have to do the meeting in English. I appreciate they were including me by doing this because by then I was the only none dutch speaking person in the meeting, but by offering to speak English because of me rather than because of programme, I become the why. And the point is I am replaceable but your core reason, the DNA at the heart of the WHY shouldn’t be replacebale.

Being the only man is a huge burden to bare. It’s a weight that many of us don’t want to carry. We are more than the minority category which you assigned to us. It’s great that you’ve hired a person of colour but don’t expect them to teach you how to be an antiracist – unless of course that’s explicitly why you hired them. And don’t get me started on the hypocrisy that women can’t coach men’s teams because they’ve never played men’s sports, but sure go ahead and promote your latest male head coach of you’re women’s national team!

In all my years of research I have yet to have a conversation with any white straight able bodied man who felt they were only given the board position or promotion opportunity because of their gender. WHY? Because why would they? The system has been built for them. Systemic racism and sexism has for decades tipped the balance in favour of white able bodied men. I’m not asserting blame, I am simply pointing out the fact that our experiences are different. And because our experiences are different we need to create different systems.

In my opinion targets and quotas are one way of tipping the balance back towards a more level playing field. Research shows that 30% is the minimal target to prevent the only man role from playing out. So for example if you’re focusing on increasing gender representation in any given space, team, board etc you should aim for a 30:60 representation.

The invisible man is the role played by many of us who find ourselves in organisations that aren’t inclusive. This isn’t limited to those of us from minority groups. I’ve seen many white, straight, able bodied men burn out in organisations that fail to see the human employee. That fail to listen to the voices of their employees. If you’re not hearing the stories of those working for you, you are either not listening or you have created an environment in which people do not feel safe sharing their stories.

As humans we are hardwired to connect with others. Even the introverts amongst us don’t want to feel invisible. We want to feel seen, heard and valued. Where and how in your business do you offer opportunities for people to share their stories and experiences?

Two years ago I lost out on a career changing promotion. At the time it was a devastating blow. I had worked my entire career for that one opportunity. One of the leaders in my organisation spoke to me afterwards and explained that all my hard work and contribution to the team and the organisation had not gone un-noticed ‘I see you’ were her exact words. And in that moment I felt seen. I felt valued. I felt like all the years of hard work had been acknowledged and were worth it. At least now they see me, maybe next time….That moment of connection was followed by deathly silence for two years. Needless to say I no longer feel seen or valued….I’m back playing the role of the invisible man.

This isn’t about ego, this is about recognition. It isn’t about title, it’s about opportunity. It isn’t about hiring diversely it’s about listening to this diverse voices. You won’t create a diverse and inclusive organisation by simply hiring the only man or the invisible man. You will create an inclusive culture were everyone thrives if you:

  1. Connect to your WHY and embed that in your organisational DNA,
  2. Create an inclusive culture where everyone feels valued and safe to share their stories,
  3. Hire a diverse workforce but don’t hire diversity in and of itself

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