A Ghostwriter’s Guide for Invisible Women
Do you feel overlooked or overtalked at the office? Don’t get mad, get tactical. Here’s how.
About 10 minutes into the Zoom meeting, I realized I was invisible.
Of the four other participants that day, three were men, one was a woman maybe two decades my junior. The four talked, asked questions and made decisions regarding our mutual work project. Despite my efforts, I couldn't seem to break into the conversation. And yes, I checked my mute setting.
If you're a woman over 50 (40?) you may recognize this scenario. We've become invisible at work. A study published by AARP last year found roughly two out of three women over 50 report discrimination in the workplace — everything from lack of promotion and training opportunities to "social group segregation" — that's the act of being frozen out by the cool kids.
Think of Invisibility as a Superpower
Research published by Harvard Business Review earlier this year highlighted the problem of gendered ageism. As women age, their perceived value and relevance in the workplace diminishes. Said one woman in the study: "I am largely ignored."
Invisibility isn't a professional death sentence. It's a stage that can be managed, even leveraged.
This is true whether we work remotely or on site. You can find many articles that advise women how to stay visible. I'm here to give the counterpoint. Invisibility isn't a professional death sentence. It's a stage that can be managed, even leveraged.
I come to this statement with more experience than most. I'm a ghostwriter. Invisibility is baked into my job. But the invisible part is supposed to come after publication. During the writing, editing and production process, I'm an active, visible part of the team. Or at least I should be. So, in my 20 years as a ghost, when I sense my team has jumped the invisibility gun, I've developed tools to remind them I'm still around — and that they still need me.
Tips to Turn the Tables
I offer these to my newly invisible sisters. If it seems like they don't see you, don't get mad. Get tactical.
- Use technology. When I couldn't seem to get my voice into the above-mentioned Zoom conversation, I started putting my comments into the chat. It's a tad passive-aggressive, but it works. By the third comment, they noticed.
Here's something I've observed another woman using: When she was getting over-talked, she raised her voice a notch and asked, "Am I muted?" Social convention demands that when you hear that in an online meeting, you have to speak up and say you can hear. And in that split second, she seized the floor: "Oh, good. Here's what I'm thinking. . . ."
- Use keywords. Ever seen the TikToks in which dog owners prank man's best friend by pretending to make a phone call and using the words that get Fido to prick up his ears? Walk, car, park, puppaccino. This works for human men. If you want their attention in a meeting, use the words they find worthy like revenue, sales, profit, engagement. Pick words they care about. I once swiftly secured all eyes in a meeting in which I was the only female by using "lawsuit" in a sentence.
Whatever you do, do not use the phrases that trigger Male Meeting Deafness. Examples: "I was just thinking. . . ." "This may not be a good idea but. . . ." "If I could just interject. . . ." If you don't find your input worthy, why should they?
Invite Yourself to Meetings
- Seek relationships. On a project a few years back, I became aware that weekly update meetings were happening without me. I made a request to be included — and while I waited for a response, I scheduled one-on-one calls with various members of the project team. I started with the women. This allowed me to get the information I was missing from the meetings — and to convey information I knew the team needed to hear.
Eventually, I was added to the invite list. Relationship building is effective and comes in many forms: I've seen other women mentor newcomers, befriend the overworked, provide a listening ear to the frustrated. Rather than fret about invisibility, they built a new posse — one that valued them.
- Beware "invisible" work. One way that women slip off the radar is by embracing non-revenue work — tasks such as note taking, scheduling, organizing staff events. Look at your calendar and evaluate each item: is this work that brings in money to this organization? Is this a task that is directly connected to the core mission of my team? Chances are good, if there's no dollar sign attached to it, it's a lesser task.
You may feel as though you are contributing, but it's a false sense of security. When you're approached (again) to plan the office holiday party, chair a committee or order the lunch, be too busy. Maybe suggest a younger man in the organization who would be just perfect for the opportunity.
- Make your exit plan. No one article is going to eradicate the one-two punch of ageism and sexism in the workplace. Would that it was that easy. So, if you think they’re looking through you, don’t spend all of your energy in battle. Carve some of it out to plan your next act. It may be a new employer or a pivot to something completely different. Perhaps in a setting or industry in which you’ll be easier to see.
Working in the Shadows
Then there are the opportunities not just to survive invisibility, but use it to your advantage. If you don't have the spotlight, consider what you can do in the shadows.
Look for the opportunities that will surprise them with your value.
Look for the opportunities that will surprise them with your value. What are the skills that are missing from the team and how can you acquire them? Can you pursue a certificate? Take an online class? Identify business opportunities the team is missing? What would happen if you pursued those gaps and secured a new client?
What industry associations are powerful in your marketplace? Can you seek leadership positions in those spaces?
If your ovaries have tapped out, your mind still works. Think of new ways, new tactics, new methods that will keep you in the mix. Don't yell into the void. Redirect that rage and outsmart them. The upside of being invisible is that they'll never see you coming.