Why Women Stay Out of the Spotlight at Work

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.

Read More

Our videos