Working women often find themselves caught in a double bind — afraid to stand out too much and be labeled "too assertive," and afraid of falling through the cracks, being overshadowed by their more assertive colleagues. That's largely why many women prefer "intentional invisibility," according to new research published in Sociological Perspectives.
The two-year study from three sociologists, Devon Magliozzi, Priya Fielding-Singh and Swethaa Ballakrishnen of Standford University found that, while visibility in the workplace may be critical for advancement, the reality is different for women. The researchers immersed themselves in a women's professional development program at a large nonprofit, conducting interviews with 86 program participants and observing 36 discussion groups and 15 program-wide meetings in which many of the women shared the barriers and biases they faced at work. For many of the women they studied, common career advice like "take a seat at the table," "lean in" and "speak up," was sometimes counterproductive.
Many of these women felt caught in a double bind — they didn't want to violate feminine norms by being authoritative when they were expected to be collaborative and communal, though they realized that keeping quiet would hurt their odds of a promotion and other career opportunities. As a solution, many of them adopted the risk-adverse, conflict-avoidant strategy the researchers called "intentional invisibility."
“Women in our study chose this strategy from a limited set of options,” wrote co-author Priya Fielding-Singh. “Because there was no clear path to having it all, many chose to prioritize authenticity and conflict reduction at work and home.”
The researchers added that, in order 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."
One software engineer in the study explained that she was so worried about having conflicts at work that could hurt her relationships with colleagues, that even when male colleagues would mistake her for being a secretary, she would shrug them off rather than correct them.
Likewise, some women reported feeling at odds with their own characters if they spoke up. They chose to keep a low profile because they often equated a visible presence with attention-seeking, boastful behaviors. Rather than emulate those behaviors, they chose to quietly challenge conventional definitions of professional success and embrace their different work style.
In one of the observed discussion groups, a woman said, "I mean, I'm never going to be big; I just never am." While she had male colleagues with big personalities, she didn't feel like she could compete — nor did she necessarily want to.
Another woman added: “Real leaders don’t really have to say what their title is, or have to brag about their accolades or whatever — your work should speak for itself.”
Going forward, the researchers suggest that organizations work on ways to ensure that women will not face any backlash for taking on more visible, active roles.
“Organizations should realize that asking women to be visible without recognizing the toll that such visibility takes is not really leveling the playing field,” co-author Swethaa Ballakrishnen advises. “To be truly equal workplaces, organizations need to rethink the ways in which they assign and reward visibility.”
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.