The Invisible Woman Syndrome is a social phenomenon where women in their 40s and 50s disappear from public view, in shops, on public transport, at work and in television and film. The invisible woman might be the actor no longer offered roles after her 40th birthday, the 50-year-old woman who can’t land a job interview, or the widow who finds her dinner invitations declining with the absence of her husband. She is the woman who finds that she is no longer the object of the male gaze—youth faded, childbearing years behind her, social value diminished.
At the half century mark, men are typically viewed as being at the zenith of their professional and personal lives, often leading organizations and companies and are viewed as accomplished and experienced. This is in contrast to women whose main stock in trade is assumed to be their physical appearance, which we’re sold and told should be youthful and appealing to the male gaze.
A survey that studied 2,000 women revealed that by the time they reach the age of 51, many women believed they had become invisible to men. Only 15% of the women felt that they had high or very high confidence in any area of their lives and 46% thought no one understood or addressed what aging and older women go through.
According to researchers, many women feel more and more invisible as they age with this issue being quite difficult for some women while for others, it’s not a problem. For those who have always been someone who’s very involved, noticed it especially more. This subtle form of cultural isolation is pervasive yet largely unnoticed by anyone who isn’t a female on the other side of 40. Women may be passed over for service in a department store, overlooked for a spare seat on the train or passed over for a promotion in the office.
On television and in film the absence of women of a certain age is perhaps more visible. Research by the University of Southern California found women were cast as just 26 per cent of characters aged 40 or older in 414 films and television shows aired in 2014 and 2015.
At work, women are opting to stay below the radar over concerns that asserting themselves may lead to negative consequences, according to a recent Stanford study. In that study, three sociologists spent two years immersed in a female professional development scheme at a large, US non-profit, where they conducted interviews with 86 participants and observed 36 discussion groups, plus 15 programme-wide meetings. Many of the women in the study felt a double bind: If they worked on the side-lines, they could be overshadowed by their colleagues and overlooked for job promotions, but having a more assertive presence in the office, could also backfire. Instead, they adopted a strategy that the researchers called intentional invisibility, a risk-averse, conflict-avoidant approach to navigating unequal workplaces. While the women in the study recognised that being less visible in the office could hurt their odds of a promotion or other career opportunities, they acknowledged that violating feminine norms, like being assertive or authoritative when they are expected to be nice, collaborative and communal could have the same effect. As a result, to craft careers that felt rewarding, women sought to reduce the chances for interpersonal conflict and to increase opportunities for friendly relationships within their work teams.
So, what is it about older women that society find so unpalatable, and why can’t the same be said for men?
Our society traditionally expects men and women to play different roles, and a woman’s role in a very conservative society, which even though many of our societies have evolved, we are still traditional in many aspects, is to be attractive and to perhaps have the role of a mother. If a woman starts to no longer be attractive, which is what some people consider if a woman ages, then she becomes less relevant. The same doesn’t apply to men because as they get older, they get more respect, if anything, and it doesn’t really matter what they look like. According to some researchers, women are seen to have lost their influence in middle age, because culture and history says an older woman is no longer powerful and therefore has nothing to offer.
But there is also a positive side to being invisible. According to Doris Lessing “And then not expecting it, you become middle-aged and anonymous. No one notices you. You achieve a wonderful freedom. It is a positive thing. You can move about, unnoticed and invisible.”
So how can women who have become invisible counter this syndrome. There are four ways to be seen and heard according to performance coach, Louise Mahler
Learn to attract attention: A female CEO in the superannuation industry uses sudden movements in meetings, says Mahler. When she is not being heard, she announces she wants a coffee, jumps out of her seat, gets one, and then remains standing. Then, when she speaks, people tend to listen.
Equalise the height: Corporate coach and former managing director of Apple Australia, Diana Ryall, just scrapes in at five foot three and says she asks people to sit down when they talk to her, so that she is not at a disadvantage.
Use movement: Mahler says she uses a technique developed by actors to draw attention, movement followed by standing still. “It is time to start playing the games,” she says.
Mindfulness: Find ways to deal with other people’s rudeness. “I use a mantra to not get angry,” says Mahler. “Forgive them Lord they know not what they do”.
Not only do we owe it to ourselves to remain visible, but we also owe it to younger women who are learning that their value is tied to a timeline that suspiciously coincides with changes in physical appearance. To any woman facing invisibility, remember that while attitudes towards ageing and female beauty are persistently stubborn, voices don’t age, so use your voice to be heard and don’t think you’re inconsequential because you’re not.