Why Women Stay Out of the Spotlight at Work


Here is an excerpt from an article written by Priya Fielding-Singh, Devon Magliozzi, and Swethaa Ballakrishnen for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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To get ahead in the workplace, you have to be seen. Being visible at work allows employees to demonstrate their skills, land prominent assignments, and build strategic relationships.

For women, however, the importance of visibility creates a conundrum.

On the one hand, women’s contributions are systematically overlooked at work. This limits their professional advancement and helps to explain why the senior levels of organizations remain overwhelmingly male. Yet when women try to make themselves more visible, they can face backlash for violating expectations about how women should behave, and risk losing their hard-won career gains.

How do women navigate this no-win situation?

In 2013 we embedded ourselves in a women’s professional development program at a large nonprofit organization in the U.S. to find out. Working with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, we conducted 86 in-depth interviews with women in the program, observed 36 discussion groups, and sat in on 15 program-wide meetings. The majority of women in our study were white and college-educated, and two-thirds were parents. Participants ranged from entry-level to VP-level employees, with an average tenure of 11 years at their organizations. Most decided to join the professional development program for its networking and educational opportunities, but many participants cited the chance to contribute to research as an added perk.

The women in our study were keenly aware of the rewards of visibility. They knew that being noticed — for example, by interjecting during meetings and taking credit for accomplishments — was a conventional strategy for professional advancement. Still, many women consciously rejected that strategy.

Instead, they opted for a risk-averse, conflict-avoidant strategy in the office. Women employed this “intentional invisibility” when they avoided conflict with colleagues, softened their assertiveness with niceness, and “got stuff done” by quietly moving things forward without drawing attention to themselves. The consequence of this approach was that they often ended up feeling well-liked but underappreciated.

Why did women choose this approach? We identified three motivations: to avoid conflict or backlash, to feel authentic at work, and to balance professional and personal demands.

Avoiding Backlash in the Workplace

Women in our study recognized that being less visible in the office could hurt their odds of promotion. But they worried that violating feminine norms could leave them even worse off. Many had personally experienced or witnessed situations where women who acted assertively or authoritatively were penalized.

As a result, many women turned to invisibility to avoid backlash from bosses and colleagues. They were aware of gender bias in the workplace and used intentional invisibility to limit their exposure to it.

For example, Sharon (all names have been changed), an administrator in a compliance office, recounted an interaction with a male colleague. As they were walking out of a meeting where she’d spoken up, he told her, “God, I’m glad I’m not married to you!” While she knew the comment was sexist, she decided, moving forward, to tone down her contributions in meetings rather than confront her colleague. “I must have been projecting more sternness than I knew I was capable of,” she told us.

Gloria, who had worked in a male-dominated field for 35 years, believed that “strong women in the workplace are still perceived as bitches.” Although Gloria recognized this stereotype as unfair, she nonetheless adapted her behavior to avoid the label: “One of my personal goals and self-learning over the course of the past 35 years is that I had to moderate my very strong personality and strong opinions on things.” To avoid being seen negatively by her colleagues, Gloria downplayed her confidence and took on a more passive workplace demeanor.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Priya Fielding-Singh is a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Devon Magliozzi is a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at Stanford University.

Swethaa Ballakrishnen is a faculty fellow at the Division of Social Sciences, New York University Abu Dhabi.


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