I was in a room full of middle-aged men. Not only was I one of the few women in the room, I was also one of the only professionals under 30 years old. It was one of many sustainable technologies and renewable energy conferences I've attended.
Upon arriving and seeing who was there, I felt deeply intimidated. Much to my relief, there was an older gentleman that I recognized so I walked up to where he was standing, talking with three or four other men.
And I stood there.
No one acknowledged me. No one even looked at me. I felt completely invisible. It's like I wasn't even there.
They carried on with their conversation and I just stood there and listened. A smile plastered on my face, because I've learned to disarm others with my smile. I smiled, looked at them as they spoke (even though they never once made eye contact with me) and listened for over 5 minutes.
I found myself becoming familiar with the topic of discussion.
Finally, I interjected a comment.
All their heads turned to look at me. It was as if I had thrown down an invisibility cloak and revealed myself to them. They appeared, stunned. A look of deep concentration swept across their faces as they considered my contribution.
I was finally welcomed into their conversation. I no longer felt invisible.
I'm not alone in having these kinds of experiences. It is hard and frustrating to be in situations where you feel invisible. These types of moments are particularly noticeable when you have no formal authority or power. And it's even more of an uphill battle when you're stereotyped as not belonging.
What's a professional to do when you feel invisible?
The first step is to acknowledge how you feel. In the instance I shared above, I felt unsure and questioned whether or not I should be there. But rather than listen to my doubt and fear, I leaned in. This is one of those instances where it's important to separate fact from fiction - the fact was this event was open to the public, I was welcome there even though I didn't feel that way.
The next step is to give your self time and space to acclimate. Rather than demanding attention, I became a wallflower, awkwardly observing with the intent of engaging. I listened closely and deeply to the conversation, seeking to understand each of their perspectives and the broader context of their discussion.
The third step is to give yourself permission to speak. If I had waited for someone to invite me into the conversation I would have remained a wallflower. Instead, I spoke up. But I didn't just make some off the wall comment, I showed that I was listening while interjecting a related, yet new idea that added to the conversation.
I wish I could say that type of experience never happened to me again within the scope of my work at that time in my life. But it did, I was a young woman in a male-dominated field. But I kept showing up, and I continued to speak up because I was driven by a deeper sense of purpose. It wasn't about needing to be seen, it was about championing a vision and being a part of something bigger than myself.
I've been in situations where I followed those first three steps only to be quickly cast aside again. Invisible but not incapable, it is with that awareness that I learned the last two steps might be the most important.
I learned that I can speak my truth but I can never force anyone to listen. While this may hurt and make me want to rage, I have found it's better to let go and not take it personally. To assume that the other person is doing their best and to acknowledge that they're human too, which means like me they are also imperfect, and to give them grace.
Lastly, I found that a powerful antidote to feeling invisible is taking action, so that's what I did. I organized others around a shared vision for positive change and we took collective action. We made awesome things happen together that other people noticed. We gained traction and with that, we became seen for our efforts.
I have found that people can ignore me when I've felt invisible and tried to speak up but they're hard-pressed if they continue to ignore me when I'm making waves.
Would you like to speak your truth but aren't sure what it is or how to say it? Save the date, 9/29, for the next Journal Jam - with just 20 minutes of journaling you'll learn how to find and contribute your voice when it matters most.