You have to speak up and get noticed to get ahead at work, but some women are intentionally opting out in a strategy known as “intentional invisibility,” according to a new study highlighted in Harvard Business Review. These are women who choose getting things done quietly over speaking up at work, women who soften their demands with niceties, and are ultimately liked but unappreciated for their hard work. They recognize that taking credit for your work assertively leads to promotions and stops others from overlooking your accomplishments, but in spite of this knowledge, the women are purposefully choosing a different path.
Why women are staying behind the scenes at work
Analyzing 86 interviews and 36 discussion groups with women in a professional development program at a large nonprofit, researchers Priya Fielding-Singh, Devon Magliozzi, and Swethaa Ballakrishnen found that women in their study — who ranged from entry-level to VP-level — were purposefully putting themselves out of the running for leadership for a multitude of reasons.
For some, being passive was meant to avoid conflict and backlash. They did not let on how confident and strong they were at work to avoid backlash from peers. As Gloria, one woman who worked in a male-dominated industry, put it: “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.” Perhaps the women recognized that they are more likely to get overlooked: research shows that women can do the same work as men but are less likely to get rewarded for it. Or perhaps they recognized that there can be a double standard for being disagreeable. When women argued at work, they were seen as “control freaks,” when men did the same, they were seen as “tough negotiators,” as one study found.
For other women, speaking up would mean adopting the behaviors of the men in power around them. To remain true to themselves, they did not act like male leaders who stood at the front of the room talking up their accomplishments. They saw being visible at work as being self-interested and chose to remain behind the scenes. For other women, being visible at work was one more pressure they could not handle on top of handling home responsibilities like raising children.
Is the solution for individual women to lean in and speak up more? No, the researchers suggest that the answer is more structural. In order for women to become authentic leaders at work, their workplaces should move beyond the default of men in leadership. That means valuing the contributions of women behind the scenes and fighting back against implicit biases at work. For managers, that means using “concrete evidence” over your feelings about an employee in your performance evaluation, the researchers said.
It also means highlighting different styles of leadership. “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,” the researchers said. “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.”
For women who feel like they cannot balance work and home, companies could offer childcare and more flexible time, so that women are more able to take charge at work. “Organizations need to recognize that women continue to work an unpaid second shift at home,” the researchers warned.