On the Visibility Ceiling & the Narcissist Feedback Loop

Why women are less represented in the world of ideas

Laetitia Vitaud
Oct 15, 2018 · 5 min read
All-male panels are still very common…

In the world of ideas, books, articles, seminars, panel discussions and keynote presentations, women are much less represented than men. Depending on the field and the country, they can even be mostly absent. That world is still a very sexist world as we are faced with the legacy of an academic world mostly shaped by men. History was written by men. Science is led by men.

Unconsciously, men and women alike still associate expertise with male figures. There are many cognitive biases that prevent us from perceiving men and women the same way. Even the world of music was long afflicted by such biases. They had to start imposing blind auditions to start recruiting more women in orchestras. It’s not entirely our fault: we were raised to believe that true creation is a man’s thing, because, after all, women have procreation

Yet, event organisers and publishers sometimes genuinely want to pick more women, but, they insist, there is a pipeline problem. Like a lot of recruiters they are faced with a dearth of female experts to recruit from. And when they do find a female expert they want to put on stage, the said expert may be reluctant to go on stage and become more visible. Why is that?

The reason is that a lot of women fail to break the visibility ceiling. When they do have publications to their names, these publications do not receive as much praise and are not viewed as often. Because Google’s algorithms reproduce and amplify existing biases, their names will not be among the first search results. Only after they’ve broken the visibility ceiling can they be picked by publishers, event organisers or various recruiters. The women who have broken that ceiling are generally very much sought after.

Breaking the visibility ceiling is about the search for recognition. That’s because the academic world and the world of books do not offer many financial rewards. So many writers are after another kind of reward: recognition, fame and praises. Many of them have a narcissistic streak: they seek the gratifications of visibility. The more praise they receive, the more it fuels their ego, and the more they will want to write and publish again to get another shoot of recognition and praise.

Narcissus looking at his reflection

The narcissist’s positive feedback loop is what leads visible writers to write more, which makes them more visible, which makes them write more, etc. Increased visibility is conducive to higher self-confidence and an increased sense of legitimacy. You are legitimate because you are visible. We all know many examples of people who are visible…because they are visible. Regardless of what they have to say and the quality of what they write, visible people have the upper hand.

Meanwhile, people who have not broken the visibility ceiling have to cope with a negative feedback loop: not receiving praise, they are discouraged from writing more. They have less self confidence and it requires even more courage and discipline to actually write something. They become less productive. As a result, they publish less and end up seeking other rewards.

The fact is that many women in the academic world publish less and seek other rewards, mostly the reward of being a better teacher by devoting more time to their students than their male (more published and praised) counterparts. Often they see the success of their students as its own reward. In a way, they live vicariously through their students the way housewives in the 1960s lived vicariously through their husbands and children. Sadly, just because they publish less, they will not necessarily be regarded as better teachers. They won’t be promoted as much. And they will be paid less because the system always rewards visibility.

It is critical to help more women break the visibility ceiling and reap all the benefits of the positive feedback loop that comes with it. By sharing, publishing, praising the works of not yet so visible women. By giving their names to event organisers and recruiters. By encouraging them to write more. By creating groups of supporters to boost their confidence.

Sometimes there is a black swan event that will propel an invisible person to the front stage: this year Donna Strickland was the first woman in 55 years to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Unlike the other two winners of the prize, she did not have a Wikipedia page at the time of the announcement. In fact, somebody had tried to create a page for her earlier this year, but it was denied by a moderator with the message: “This submission’s references do not show that the subject qualifies for a Wikipedia article.” In other words, it was determined that Strickland was not visible enough to get her own Wikipedia page.

Donna Strickland

Wikipedia is a perfect illustration of the visibility ceiling at work. With less than 15% of female contributors and fewer pages created for female scientists, writers, artists, etc. Wikipedia reproduces and amplifies biases. It triggers powerful narcissist feedback loops, and negative invisibility loops. Had it not been for the Nobel Prize committee, Strickland would have remained invisible to the wider public and perceived as less legitimate than her male counterparts. Isn’t it high time we broke that ceiling too?

Laetitia Vitaud

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