Each day I drive to work through a construction zone. Recently, I noticed that while the men on the crew were lifting materials or drilling into the concrete, every woman I saw was standing still on the side of the road “holding the slow sign.” I couldn’t help but wonder if the women on the side of the road chose this role or were relegated to this role because assumptions were made about their ability to do more labor intensive, skill-based work. Each time I pass by, I reflect on how analogous this is to the marginalizing moments that come with being a woman in leadership and the never-ending questions that many women and people of color ask as we navigate these experiences.
Playing the Role
Research tells us that in order to get or maintain a seat at the table, women tend to take on roles that resemble the early image of Katherine Johnson from the movie, Hidden Figures. Katherine’s role was critical, but she remained in the background. Her astute awareness, intelligence and efficiency were instrumental to the success of her boss. Katherine represented the “good woman” behind the man. Even typing this sentence makes me cringe a little, because we all must acknowledge that there is truth, even in ignorant phrases like this one. It also represents the hill that we continue to climb just to be valued and recognized for what we bring to the table once we get there.
For me, it begs the question, “Are there times in which taking on these roles benefit us and allow us to subliminally insert ourselves into the bigger picture, gaining trust and social capital along the way?” If the answer to this question is yes, then does holding the slow sign mean something different than being relegated to this role without having a choice? Does one represent how we value our own ability and contribution and the other more about how others value the same?
Sitting on Our Hands
Another important question that comes to mind when considering the role that women play when we are at the table is, “When should we sit on my hands?” A colleague of mine, who is the former Dean of the College of Business at Northern Illinois University, once shared that as a leader, she learned to “sit on her hands.” She went on to say that another way in which women tend to ensure that we are at the table and involved in what is happening is by raising our hands and taking on tasks that others have not stepped up to take on. For many of us it is a way to give back, be connected to the bigger picture and provide meaningful contributions, but what often happens is that the workload increases with no guarantee of a return. In her wisdom, she noted that we don’t always have to be “doing” to be seen or heard. There is value in “sitting on our hands” and letting others step up.
Am I Enough?
The next important question is centered on voice. Once we’ve made it in, will our voice be enough? We all have had moments where we shared an idea in a meeting and were immediately silenced by the voices of male colleagues. Even though the comment was restated, somehow it appears as if it was being said for the first time. If, in these moments, we were to even think about saying what we’d like to say, which is, “Wait, I just said that!” would we then be relegated to “holding the slow sign?” The underlying message suggests that even when women are at the table, there is a sense that we must monitor our responses in ways that don’t negatively impact our ability to maintain our seat at the table.
Sadly, this phenomenon is not necessarily one that we experience only in relation to our male colleagues. I’ve sat in enough meetings where giving voice to concerns and realities and sharing relevant ideas is not only dismissed by male colleagues, but is a trigger for similar marginalizing behavior from female colleagues. After sitting in a meeting recently, I took note of my own personal feelings of being marginalized while also recognizing how these behaviors are often masked by the privileged and are used as weapons to patronize the marginalized person. In moments like this, I question whether some women choose to hold the slow sign so as not to be subjected to “inauthentic collegiality” that is used to mask insecurities and privilege. Even as an academic, I don’t need to scour journal articles to recognize the feeling of marginalization or microinsults that show up by way of dismissive actions, strange looks across the table to other “inauthentic colleagues” or through the veil of email and inadvertent miscommunication, leaving room for interpretation and missteps.
Moments like these represent the frequent microinsults that women and people of color often face when using our voice, resulting in an internal questioning of whether we are enough, whether we are valued or seen as an asset or a quota, and if there is a way for us to fight this battle with our mind and not our hearts. There are moments where we work hard, setting aside time from our families and producing results that make our bosses look good, our institutions look good and make us feel good, followed by moments where the credit goes elsewhere or when the time and energy spent is not acknowledged or valued. These moments often lead to other questions about whether we will fully have an opportunity to bring our skills to the table or whether we will be shoved aside to “hold the slow sign.”
I’m not suggesting that this is every woman’s experience, but that there is a reality that we all have these moments, these feelings, and these thoughts. It is in these moments that we must remember our own value, champion our skills and talents and remind ourselves that we belong at the table.
Renique Kersh, Ph.D., has been a scholar and practitioner in the field of higher education for 19 years. Dr. Kersh has had a diverse career with experience as a practitioner in the areas of college student retention, leadership education and college student success and engagement. In addition to her administrative role as Associate Vice Provost for Student Engagement and Success at Northern Illinois University, she serves as an Assistant Professor in the Counseling, Adult and Higher Education Department at Northern Illinois University. Her research interests include student engagement and success and women in leadership in higher education.