You can’t be what you can’t see?


This is Milly.

Milly is 11 years old. She is an articulate, intelligent, thoughtful girl and also a natural athlete. This is a girl who shuns the ladder to the top bunk and does a pull-up instead.

A few months ago, Spartan Race Japan held a trial event in Odaiba and Milly came along with her mum, a fellow Spartan. The plan was that whilst the adults were sweating it out on the 90-minute course, Milly would tackle the kids’ obstacle trial. Based on this, we headed off for running, climbing, crawling and burpees in the 29-degree heat.

When we came back, Milly was sitting with her dad. She had clearly not been on the course.

“What happened? Why are you not on the kids course?”

“Mmm… I didn’t want to….”

“What? We came all the way here to Odaiba. This is a great chance to train for the race in October!”

“I don’t want to do it. There are only boys.”

We were gobsmacked. In front of us was this amazing young athlete and she was not going to shine because she felt excluded from the group.

Because she was a girl.

She didn’t feel like she could take part. Her reason: there was no one like her on the course. She didn’t belong there.

Because she was a girl.

You can’t be what you can’t see

I’ve always been quite dismissive of the need for women to have specifically female role models in the workplace. Being in a male-dominated company for most of my career in Japan has meant I was often the only woman in the room. I assumed that many women  working in Japan know we might need to be the pioneer in our organization and I just got used to being the “first woman” to do something.

But here was a clear and quite painful reminder that the inability to see people “like you” taking part and being engaged, really does hold people back.

It was so sad to see this talented girl sitting on the sidelines. My hope is that she can find the courage to be a pioneer when she needs to in the future.

What if there are no role models?

In line with this belief of “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it”, many organisations in Japan seem to be fixated on the idea that the reason that women are not climbing the corporate ladder is because there are no internal role models. They have resigned themselves to the idea that change is impossible unless women can see someone like themselves at a higher level. An aspirational role model is essential for success.

How does this mindset help though?

It’s a Catch-22 situation – there are no female senior role models because there are no female senior role models.

How can you break out of this mindset?

Firstly, think of your leadership role – how can you make minority or outside groups feel that they do belong? How do you make meetings more inclusive? Let people know that their ideas and contributions are valued – not just as a representative of a “special interest group” but as a key part of your team.

“What are your thoughts on this from a female perspective, Jennifer?” is probably a well-intentioned attempt to bring in a different perspective but reminds me and everyone else in the room of my difference. Asking me to speak on behalf of all women is as ridiculous as when I am asked, “What do foreigners think about Japan?”. I can only share my experience, so please go and ask 100 other people if you want a statistically reliable answer.

Secondly, support the pioneers. Actively seek out the talent that looks different from your previous success profile. Know what that individual values and how your organisation might support it…but again, don’t assume that all the pioneers need the same support.

You are missing out on exceptional performance from your team and potential employees because of their perception of what a success profile looks like in your organization. As a leader in this talent-short market, you need to be addressing the implicit bias in your company and making extra effort to support those who might be being overlooked.

Finally, accept that even though it looks to you like the playing field is totally even and there are no signs on the door saying “No girls (or whatever!) allowed”, you could be seeing this through the lens of your privilege. The experience for other people can be totally different than yours.

So what happened to Milly?

You’ll be glad to know that there is a happy ending to this story.  On closer inspection, there were not only boys taking part. Milly was persuaded to give it a go and change her perspective. She made a new friend and, in the end, it was hard to drag her away as she was having so much fun.

We got to see Milly in action, tearing up the course… and it must have been dusty out on the course that day. I got a little teary eyed watching her shine.



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