Women Are Choosing To Be Intentionally Invisible At Work, Here’s Why

Wednesday 22 August 2018
New research says some women think resorting to intentional invisibility could help them progress
woman working on laptop

Women do not assert themselves in the workplace over fears their behaviour could backfire on them professionally. Instead, they opt to take apparently safer positions on the sidelines of a business, new research suggests.

While women may have been told that in order to advance their careers they need to be more visible in their place of work, and that they should follow common tips such as ‘speak with authority’, ‘interject at meetings,’ and ‘take a seat at the table,’ many instead choose to take a quieter but longer route to success.

According to a study on why professional women avoid the spotlight, published in Sociological Perspectives, Stanford University researchers Devon Magliozzi, Priya Fielding-Singh and Swethaa Ballakrishnen found that women adopted a conflict-avoidant approach dubbed “intentional invisibility” when working in an unequal workplace.

Are Women Choosing To Be Invisible At Work?

The researchers immersed themselves within a women’s professional development programme at a large, non-profit organisation in America for the study. The 86 women who participated were interviewed by the researchers, who also observed 36 discussion groups and meetings over the space of two years.

Many of the women in the study said they found themselves experiencing a double bind. They feared that deciding to be authoritative and assertive could work against them as it contradicts social norms that expect women to be collaborative and nice. Equally, the women admitted that if they did not assert themselves and instead worked on the sidelines of a business then they could easily be overlooked for promotions and other career opportunities.

One woman told the researchers she was worried that any conflict in the workplace could affect her relationship with her colleagues, to the point where she did not correct men in meetings who mistook her for a secretary, when she was in fact, a software engineer.

Some Women Fear Assertive Behaviour Could Be Seen As Attention-seeking

Other women associated being assertive with attention-seeking behaviour, which they did not feel comfortable replicating. “Real leaders don’t really have to say what their title is, or have to brag about their accolades or whatever,” said one woman. “Your work should speak for itself,” she added.

Is Intentional Invisibility Good For Work/life Balance?

In the study, some participants said having a less visible role at work helped them to create a better work/life balance, especially if they had children to care for. Many women admitted they could only pursue their individual ambitions “to a point, to ensure stability” due to their evolving family responsibilities, while others found that taking a behind-the-scenes approach to their work meant they were able to be both effective and not in the spotlight, avoiding any possible backlash.

“Women in our study chose this strategy from a limited set of options,” said Fielding-Singh. “Because there was no clear path to having it all, many chose to prioritise authenticity and conflict reduction at work and home.”

The CMI’s director of strategy Petra Wilton says intentional invisibility is fuelled by gender bias in the workplace. “This ‘intentional invisibility’ strategy identified by Stanford research happens when women feel they can't be authentic at work and need to adapt their behaviour to avoid the spotlight where they are judged by different criteria to men,” she explains.

CMI Women React To New Intentional Invisibility Research

Writing in the CMI Women Facebook group, many female managers share Wilton’s analysis. One comments: “Being intentionally invisible can be a strategy for survival in an organisation where the culture is to blame and scapegoat [others]. I’ve had the experience of speaking up on behalf of others, only to then be targeted and unsupported. If you have a mortgage to pay and a family to support… keeping quiet and keeping your head below the parapet is a strategy to maintain your income!”

Others could see the advantage of intentional invisibility for both genders. “Some of the very successful men I know chose to avoid conflict and lay low and that served them very well indeed. Let’s face it, no-one likes a naysayer, which can be branded a troublemaker,” offers a second contributor.

In order to ensure environments encourage all employees, CMI’s Wilton insists that managers need to eliminate the so-called ‘broken windows’ behaviours that reinforce discrimination. These behaviours include women being talked over in meetings or being described as ‘bossy’ or ‘pushy’ when they’re being assertive. The behaviours can soon escalate to create a culture of inequality.

“This everyday bias was reported by over 80% of both men and women in our recent research,” says Wilton. “It is these behaviours and workplace cultures that chip away at the possibility of gender equality and leave women struggling to rise to more senior positions.

“We need to call out, challenge and change these ‘broken window’ behaviours, by encouraging women and men to speak up in the moment they see and hear them. This will help create more inclusive cultures where women don’t feel the need to be invisible to get through their working day.”

Read more: Shocking gender inequality statistics in the Broken Windows research