Invisible woman syndrome

Invisible woman syndrome

Let’s talk about role models.  I think it’s universally agreed that role models are A Good Thing,  especially for women;  they provide a sense that change is possible,  a glimpse of the future,  an alternative perspective on what life might be like “there”,  perhaps some tips and hints on how to get there.  When I was researching and then writing The Leaking Pipeline,  which featured interviews from 79 senior business women, all great role models, around the world,  I took and learned so much from their stories and their determination.

Of course,  role models can come in all shapes, sizes and walks of life,  as the PinkStinks campaign team demonstrate so admirably on their website,  which is in turn a great example of how to harness multi-media technology in this ever changing world.  When I was growing up, pre the computerised age,  my role models were the women I saw around me:  my mum (a mature student, a successful career woman in later life and now, in her sixties, a “sandwich generation” carer to both her grandsons and her own mother AND one of the applicants to volunteer at the 2012 London Olympics), teachers, librarians,  perhaps TV presenters such as Valerie Singleton.  I don’t really remember many women, other than actresses, on TV in the 1970s,  across the three channels to which we had access – Anna Ford and Angela Rippon read the news and that was about it.

So why am I pondering on this now?  Well,  a few months ago,  I watched a fabulous three part BBC4 series called Electric Dreams,  in which a family of six (parents and four children, including two daughters) spent a month replicating the arrival of the last thirty years’ worth of technology.  Their home was taken back to how it would have been,  in technology terms,  in the 1970s and they were stripped of TVs, mobile phones, computers, gaming consoles and all the associated domestic electrical gadgets: no microwaves, automatic washing machines or any other time and labour saving devices.  As each new day of the experiment arrived,  the time machine moved forward a year and the family took delivery of a new piece of technology – so we saw them getting to grips with early VCRs, black and white computer monitors, mobile phones the size of a brick and so on.

(c) BBC

The family were supported by a team of three technical gurus,  including Dr Gia Milinovich, who is a technology writer and self-confessed geek.  I thought she was fabulous in the series – clever,  funny,  great sense of history,  with a real appreciation of how technology has been such a huge enabler over the last thirty years.  The other two team members were blokes – see photo – so I think Gia served as a very positive role model for women in technology (and, perhaps,  for the two girls in the house).  I subsequently watched another three part BBC series which she presented (for which I can’t find a link – perhaps I dreamed it?) about the development and emergence of technology which made it seem really interesting and accessible, even to the non-Apple-owning types amongst us.

And I’m focusing on Gia because …? OK. Last month,  Gia wrote this article for the Guardian,  in which she highlighted how she has basically become invisible since her husband of six years,  rock star/God like physicist Prof. Brian Cox,  hit the media spotlight and became the acceptable (and sexy) face of popular science.

“When we first met”,  she writes,  “I was the expensively groomed television professional, working on mostly science and technology shows, and he was the newly appointed physics academic with a student’s wardrobe and a single bed.”

But, then:  “… he presented Wonders Of The Solar System and everything changed.”

She goes on to detail how her husband’s level of fame and recognition (in supermarkets, on the street) then escalated to the point where other women are zoning in on him in public and on Twitter and behaving as if Gia simply … doesn’t exist.

As if all of that wasn’t bad enough,  Gia has also had to take a hit in career terms,  as she explains that:

“…A few years ago, I started to notice that the more Brian appeared on TV, the less interesting I became to other people. I started to morph from Gia Milinovich, independent woman with her own life and separate bank account, into “Mrs Brian Cox”, then into “wife”. Pre-fame, I was asked for my opinions; now, I’m asked what Brian thinks.”

And,  circling back to our role models angle,  Gia has now decided to take a step back from continuing to work in TV,  describing here how she has found herself treated in a way which is doubtless only too familiar to women in corporate life – as if what she says has no value,  unless and until the very same words are uttered by a male colleague in the same meeting,  at which point they are fallen upon as if they are true pearl encrusted nuggets of gold.

“The respect for my professional abilities has declined in inverse proportion to the number of Google searches for “Is Prof Brian Cox divorced yet?”

“The first signs were there five years ago when Brian and I went to pitch some ideas to a producer at a well-known production company. I’d had a science-technology series broadcast on Channel 4 several months earlier, and Brian’s appearances as the science expert on This Morning were going very well.

“From the start, the producer’s attention was on Brian. Every time I spoke, he’d look at me as though I was interrupting their conversation. At one point, I came out with what I thought was an excellent idea. The producer again turned towards me, said nothing and then turned slowly back to Brian. About a minute later, Brian repeated my idea almost word for word and the producer told him it was brilliant.”

So,  how sad is this?  This clever, funny, educated woman,  a fabulous role model for women in science, women in TV,  women everywhere really,  has decided that –

“Brian has made a well-loved science series and I, well, until I work out how I fit into all of this, I’ll just continue washing his pants.”

Don’t do it, Gia.  Hang on in there – we need more women like you on TV!

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5 thoughts on “Invisible woman syndrome

  1. A tangential question: As occurred to me during reading, when women and role models are concerned, it is always assumed that the role model is a woman. Is there from your POV a reason for this, respectively a reason why a man does not make a good role model for women?

    There may be some specific role models that need to be women (possibly, relating to child-birth or similar). There are definitely cases where the existence of a successful woman is useful as proof of possibility. However, in a more general situation, why should not a woman pick a man as role model (or, obviously, vice versa). If a someone wants to be a physicist [politician, journalist, explorer, musician, …], why not pick whomever (s)he considers the most admirable physicist [politician, journalist, explorer, musician, …] regardless of sex? (Notably, merely being successful, even as woman, does not automatically make one a worthy role model, but a multitude of other factors play in. Consider Lindsey Lohan, for an uncontroversial example.)

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    1. Michael – thanks for your comment and you make some very good points. I think it’s important to focus on role models in this context as being very much about, to use your phrase, the “proof of possibility”. Yes, role models for us all can come from all walks of life and both genders; but if, say, you are a 10 year old black girl who loves science at school but who only ever sees white guys on TV talking about it, then do you really get any kind of message from the media that a career in science is possible for you?

      And I have a male African-American friend who has told me that, when growing up as the only child of a single mother in St Louis, he looked around for male role models and could only see black sportsmen and rappers who had “made it” in wealth terms – so he needed role models as a little boy just as much as any little girl.

      I do think that, though, that role models are also about seeing and emulating great behaviours – and those can come from any source and any gender (or age, race or sexuality).

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  2. I found this particular blog post appealing because I was searching for posts pertaining to women and the media. Although this did not specifically relate to what I was searching for, you made interesting points. I agree with the point you made that women always have role models, whether it be their mothers or celebrities because of the sense that change is possible. This brings me to a question however, do you believe that the women in the media today such as female artists, should be more careful with how they present themselves? Knowing that they are looked up to and it is not only women that look up to them, but also teenagers.

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