Why So Many Mermaids?

What a person, organization or country chooses to honor publicly speaks volumes to what it values. Which makes the number of mermaid statues across the United States a little tough to take.
 
When the non-profit Monument Lab took an inventory of 50,000 public monuments installed across the country, they found only three of the 50 most frequently celebrated historical figures to be women. Even when women were depicted, they were more likely to be mythological or fictional figures than historic ones. Monument Lab documented at least 22 statues of mermaids — and only two for U.S. Congresswomen.
 
The popularity of The Little Mermaid aside, it’s well past time to shine a light on the critical accomplishments that women have made, and continue to make, to progress in our society. 
 
Under the radar 
Being an effective team member is a key skill today where collaboration is, at least in theory, prized. But research published in the Journal of Political Economy suggests women are less likely to receive credit for their contributions when they collaborate with male colleagues.
 
In a study of male and female academics in the field of economics, male researchers tended to get the same amount of credit for co-authoring a paper as they did for writing a paper on their own. Those who published solo and with collaborators were offered tenure at similar rates. But women who wrote papers as part of a team received far less recognition, and far fewer offers of tenure than male collaborators.
 
Other research conducted at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada found that male students assumed their male classmates were more knowledgeable than female students, even when the female students had higher grades, and that men consistently gave more credit to other men.
 
The visibility conundrum
While women are often chastised for being unwilling to advocate for themselves or said to lack confidence that keeps them from engaging in self-promotion, a deeper look often reveals that women are making conscious choices to avoid the backlash they sometimes encounter when their behaviors run counter to expected gender norms.
 
In a gender study conducted by researchers from Stanford University and New York University Abu Dhabi, three researchers embedded themselves in a women’s professional development program at a large nonprofit organization in the United States. They conducted 86 in-depth interviews with women in the program, observed 36 discussion groups and sat in on 15 meetings.
 
They found that the women participants were acutely aware of the need to be noticed in order to advance, yet still consciously chose a strategy of “intentional invisibility” because they feared speaking up and taking credit for their accomplishments would leave them even worse off.
 
Awarding women the credit they’ve earned
When organization leaders understand that women team members are likely being overlooked for accomplishments that win men praise, they have an opportunity to change the dynamic and more effectively spotlight and reward women. Some thoughts to consider in doing so.
 
  • Broaden the definition of valuable leadership attributes. One way that organizations can improve their ability to recognize women’s accomplishments, according to the Stanford researchers, is to see leadership traits more often practiced by women as equally valuable as those more typical of men. Leading through inspiration, collaboration and shared decision making, attributes more often applied by women, should be recognized and rewarded just as the attributes of calling attention to your accomplishments and actively taking credit for them.  
 
  • Amplification is a technique women can use themselves to help one another be heard and seen. Senior women working in the Obama White House, frustrated at seeing male peers garner more attention in meetings and their ideas advance more quickly, launched this echoing and supporting technique. When another woman was interrupted, they’d interject to say they’d like to hear the colleague finish. If a coworker took credit for another woman’s idea, they would remind attendees where the idea was initiated. If they saw a woman being marginalized or her ideas not heard, they’d specifically ask her to weigh in.
 
  • Celebrate women’s accomplishments. Women can also work together to highlight successful outcomes led by female colleagues, point out key credentials or accomplishments when introducing other women and call the attention of more senior leaders to the accomplishments of other women. If women are not being profiled in company communications and meetings, that also creates an opening to speak up and suggest several people worthy of such recognition. Women leaders can also set a strong example by tuning into the accomplishments of their female team members.
 
  • Mentor and sponsor other women. The Women in the Workplace study from McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.org consistently finds that women receive less of the mentoring, sponsorship and feedback that helps men advance. When you advocate for other women on their way up, you help expand the pipeline of senior women and the likelihood that the organization will grow in its ability to associate women with   leadership and recognize women for it.
 
Most women are not expecting (or seeking) a statue in their honor. But all women need greater recognition of their unique skillsets, perspectives and accomplishments to pave the road to greater advancement.  
     
 

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