In these days of unprecedented uncertainty with the spread of COVID-19, the power of and need for effective, strategic and consistent communication from leaders is in focus more than ever. Every word spoken by politicians, health policy experts and scientists is scrutinised not just for its accuracy but for evidence that the person speaking understands their audience; not just what people need to hear, but how and when they need that information delivered.

The important roles that communication and having a platform for impact play has been underestimated as an enabler for leadership over time, and perceived somewhat one-dimensionally. That’s why “visibility” was created as a specific stream within the Homeward Bound program, running in concert with the leadership, strategy and science streams: to support women leaders in STEMM with both the mindset and the skills to be effective, visible leaders, as it’s meaningful for them and supports their goals.

Visibility: being self-aware, being seen and heard by others, building authentic influence and engaging strategically for wider impact, is a significant and underestimated contributor supporting women’s leadership and meaningful impact. In fact, research has shown that visibility often eclipses all other criteria in women’s advancement. In the context of Homeward Bound, visibility also incorporates science communications, a critical part of many of our alumnae’s day-to-day life.

But visibility is not a straightforward proposition and it can come with risks. For women, structural barriers and embedded cultural bias can obstruct their advancement and the challenges for women in STEMM are particularly pernicious: where visibility is rewarded for men in STEMM it can be punished for women in some contexts. An estimated 71% of women in STEMM have reported harassment, and studies show women candidates are more likely to be appointed to a leadership position that is risky and where there is an increased rate of failure. People tend to judge a woman less competent in supposedly ‘male’ jobs unless they are clearly successful, in which case she’s judged less likeable. Let alone the real-world risks of visibility in countries with poor human-rights records or in sectors that attract polarised opinions, such as climate, energy or health.

We also know that societal pressures mean women can often be their own worst critic: perfectionism, overly-critical or fearful self-talk and “imposter syndrome” are barriers we see and hear very clearly, and heartbreakingly, in each Homeward Bound program.

Sarah Anderson – Homeward Bound 2 Credit: Oli Sansom

So visibility is not a straight-forward proposition. That’s why we brought together a multidisciplinary team that is increasingly diverse and combines alumnae and non-Homeward Bound-affiliated experts, with experience in leadership, strategy, media, coaching and facilitation, learning design, organisational communications, science communications, marketing, brand development, academia, government, corporate, policy-development, nonprofit, and many other areas of visibility, to create a program that cuts across the key areas critical to effective visibility. The intention is to support each woman in STEMM in Homeward Bound to lead visibly and communicate impactfully wherever she is, be that in science, government, academia, activism or industry.

Together the visibility team steers each Homeward Bound cohort through an ever-evolving, three-pillared approach to visible leadership, which has been developed in our work with leaders, organisations large and small, and movements. The three pillars are:

  1. Visibility to self: When we talk about visibility, most people assume the first step is to be seen and heard by others. For authenticity and longevity, this is not the case. We need self-awareness first: to show up and be visible to ourselves. This means understanding what our beliefs and challenges are about visibility, as well as our strengths. It’s articulating our purpose, values and vision. It’s reframing our self-talk — so when the opportunity arises to step into leadership, we feel willing to do it calmly, courageously and strategically. The process of becoming visible to ourselves takes time and can be the most challenging part of becoming a visible leader. But it’s also the most rewarding as we realise our true potential and power. In Homeward Bound, visibility to self is developed in concert with the leadership and strategy streams.
  2. Visibility to others: We are very clear, in all of our programs, of the power and need to be strategic. Before influencing others, you need to be clear on your strategy. What are the outcomes you’re seeking to achieve? Then, who is most important for you to engage with: is it just one key person, or a million people? Get your audience and their needs clear and the other elements of strategic visibility to others — messaging, platform choice, evaluation and refinement — becomes easy. Then we look at raw skills development — another critical piece of visibility mastery — with masterclasses across platforms including writing, media, policy, social media and visual communication. We encourage each cohort to test and learn, experimenting with new forms of visibility and supporting and championing each other as they do.
  3. Collective visibility: Collective visibility is when we use the visible leadership platform we’ve built for ourselves to support a cause, issue or movement bigger than ourselves. Any successful movement-maker you can think of uses collective visibility; from Melinda Gates to Leonardo di Caprio, Greta Thunberg, Al Gore or Jane Goodall. This is where collaboration, generosity and elevating others creates momentum and collective impact. We are seeing more and more examples of Homeward Bound alumnae using collective visibility to have deep and wide impact across the world.

Julia May – Homeward Bound 4 

You may be weighing up whether to apply for Homeward Bound, or may not be someone for whom this applies. No matter where you are, you can take strategic steps into more visible leadership, starting today. And when we say leadership, we mean in any area of your life — leadership is a state of mind, not a job title.

Use the three pillars of visibility, and these three simple questions, to enhance your will and skills to be visible and step forward when called into leadership:

Visibility to self:  What unhelpful self-talk can I reframe in this moment?

Visibility to others: What’s one simple outcome I can achieve by being courageously visible right now?

Collective visibility: How could I use my visibility to support others?

As we talk about in the program, visibility without value is vanity. So know your value and take the leap.

By Julia May and Sarah Anderson, co-founders of the visibility stream of Homeward Bound

The Homeward Bound visibility team also includes Fern Hames, Kylie Lewis and Dr Tara Shine. To read more from Julia and Sarah, visit their website (Visibility Co), take a look at their article in Women’s Agenda and their profile in Geelong Advertiser.