Before I became a wife and mother I was told that if I did my job really well, no one would even know that I was doing it. By sensing the imbalances and needs of my family, I would smooth out the tensions and serve as the glue that would hold everyone together. To be happy, I would have to find satisfaction in the knowledge that I was effective, and not rely on external appreciation or accolades that were unreliable, at best.
As a young woman I accepted this advice as truth and began my silent and largely invisible service as a steward of family harmony. And after leaving an assistant professor position for something more family friendly, my contributions as a professional staff member quickly began to feel shadowy and unseen. And once again while I knew I was highly effective, I quickly became invisible to the (largely male) leadership surrounding me.
Between the worlds of vision and coordination are layers of process and implementation that serve as the life blood of organizations and programs. They are fed by teams of competent and talented professionals who are able to flex and pivot, applying their skills to constantly changing contexts and environments often with little direction or support. These individuals -often women- serve as the proverbial glue, ensuring stability and balance even in the face of uncertainty and dysfunction.
As a seasoned veteran I have learned to survive – and perhaps even thrive- in this environment. Despite a constantly changing landscape and cast of players, I am able to reframe my goals and leverage my relationships, weathering uncertainty and providing myself with the clarity that I need.
But when I look at the young professionals around me I have a growing concern about their invisible status and the implications for both their growth and well being. Because leadership is often unaware of staff’s talents, contributions, and the critical role that they play within the larger context, they are left virtually unprotected and vulnerable. And as institutions struggle to remain competitive and viable, strategic goals and targets begin to substitute for mission and vision, with all individuals becoming disposable- especially those who are unseen.
As someone who is watching this scenario unfold I can tell you that it’s alarming on a number of levels. For the individual it can be devastating- threatening one’s self-esteem and sense of identity and self. But for the institutions that they silently serve, the implications are even more profound. When these individuals become dejected, or even worse eliminated, the culture and outputs of the organization are weakened and lessened with little chance of redress or remediation.
Clearly, it is time to bring these invisible professionals and their work- our work- into the light. For those of us lucky enough to have security and perspective, our responsibility is even more pronounced. We must find our voices and the skills to demonstrate our value and the roles that we can play, creating new spaces and new opportunities for professionals to make their contributions and help us achieve harmony and impacts as well as success.
When I look back at the advice given to me so long ago, I now know that it was both dated and incomplete, attached to old-fashioned models that have proven neither sustainable nor fulfilling. It is time for us to finally emerge from the shadows, owning our impact and supporting one another as a true community of professionals.