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.
Finding Professional Authenticity
For Gloria and some of her peers, staying quiet at work required conscious effort. For other women in the program, however, being highly visible felt inauthentic and out of character.
Indeed, most women rejected the executive, self-promoting leadership style in favor of a mission-oriented, communal style. They dismissed the pursuit of visibility at work as self-serving and rejected the idea that they should have to embrace norms set up to advantage traditionally male characteristics. They viewed staying behind the scenes as more consistent with their personalities than taking up space and taking credit. In this way, being less visible helped many women align their personal values and professional demeanor.
Lucy, a senior manager in development, described executive-style leaders as “cold and rational…. They aren’t compelling, passionate or interesting.” She explained that she did not want to have to take on these characteristics to succeed in the workplace.
Similarly, Tanya, a professional development coach, rejected executive leadership style in favor of a team-based approach. “Not that there is anything wrong with people who want to promote themselves and make money and have great titles — it’s just that I was very uncomfortable with the word ‘leadership’ until I was able to redefine it for myself,” she said.
Women didn’t view invisibility only as more authentic; they also believed it was better for the team. Janice, a wellness program manager, said, “Strong leadership is not only leading by example, but in such a way that other people can learn it, other people can do it. And the leader becomes part of a team. They become almost invisible, as part of the team — except as a resource.”
Rather than aspire to executive norms associated with masculinity, these women focused on the ethical and economic advantages of behind-the-scenes work. While this allowed them carry out their work with authenticity, it also kept their contributions from being recognized.
Women shoulder a disproportionate share of household responsibilities, particularly in families with children. In our study, mothers were more likely than other women to embrace intentional invisibility. Staying invisible at work gave women more time and energy to fulfill obligations at home. And just as invisibility minimized conflict with colleagues, it helped women avoid backlash from their partners.
Many women feared or had experienced trouble with their partners if they started valuing ambition or risk-taking in their careers. Mary, who had a husband and two young children, felt increasingly empowered over the course of the program. After years in middle management, she had recently discovered and hoped to act on a desire to climb the professional ladder. Mary explained midway through the program that her new approach to her career had jolted things at home:
In my mind, I was becoming the person I wanted to be. I was taking professional development classes and talking to people and practicing it in my real life. And one day, I saw my husband getting increasingly upset with me. So finally I said to him, “Did I do something?” and he said, “I don’t even know who you are anymore! You’re making all of these plans, you’re talking about going back to school, you’re doing this and that, and you’re not present, you’re not here for us. We used to talk about things that would impact the two of us.” I realized in that moment, “Oh, I guess there’s a reality.”
Women like Mary had an interest in taking professional risks and pushing their careers forward, but found that they could pursue their ambitions only to a point to ensure familial stability.
Other women shared that they bore the (gendered) burden of maintaining family stability by being constantly available to deal with caretaking and family contingencies. To do so, they crafted careers around flexibility and stability while their husbands pursued riskier, and potentially more rewarding, ambitions.
Sharing the Spotlight
Women are often advised to stand out if they want to get ahead. But taking on visible roles in the workplace exposes women to risk, and they know it. As long as women are faced with only bad options, the choice to stay behind the scenes will continue to be appealing.
Organizations can take three steps to make it easier for women to be seen and promoted: Value unconventional forms of leadership, fight implicit bias, and balance women’s second-shift responsibilities.
First, most organizations value leaders who stand at the front of the room and take credit. This stereotypically masculine definition of leadership leaves many women’s contributions overlooked or undervalued. By valuing leadership attributes that women apply more often than men — like being inspirational and inviting participatory decision making — organizations can elevate women without pushing them to adapt their behaviors to masculine norms. This reorientation could not just advance women’s careers but also benefit organizations.
Second, organizations could counteract the implicit biases that end up penalizing women who are assertive and self-promoting. For instance, supervisors can be taught to provide concrete examples of employees’ skills and accomplishments in performance evaluations. Likewise, when considering candidates for promotion, managers should beware of evaluations that use words like “bitchy,” “pushy,” or “rude.” By changing workplace culture to align behaviors, systems, and processes with gender-egalitarian values, organizations can minimize the risk women who step into the spotlight face.
Third, organizations need to recognize that women continue to work an unpaid second shift at home. Workplace policies that ease family demands, like child care programs, can free women up to take on more-demanding professional roles. Organizations can additionally help change the expectation that women bear primary responsibility for the household by including men in policies like family leave and flex-time. Women continue to make extraordinary sacrifices for a shot at “having it all.” Creating organizational cultures and policies that recognize these sacrifices is crucial.
While it’s easy to urge women to step into the spotlight, doing so without considering visibility’s risks to women is shortsighted. So is treating the problem of visibility as something for women to fix themselves. To achieve workplace equality, we need to redesign organizations — not the women who work in them.
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.
Read this great article on Harvard Business Review