Stanford sociologists look at why women stay behind the scenes at work
While research has shown that visibility in the workplace is critical for professional advancement, the reality is that for some women, it’s easier said than done.
According to a new study by Stanford scholars, professional women have strong reasons to ignore recommendations that urge them to have a more visible presence at work.
Why professional women avoid the spotlight is the topic of a new paper in Sociological Perspectives by sociology doctoral candidates Devon Magliozzi and Priya Fielding-Singh and by PhD alumna Swethaa Ballakrishnen.
For two years, the three sociologists immersed themselves in a women’s professional development program at a large nonprofit organization in the United States. They conducted interviews with 86 program participants and observed 36 discussion groups and 15 program-wide meetings where many of the women shared the barriers and biases they encountered at their organization, as well as the strategies they used to overcome them.
They found that for many of the women they studied, there are competing expectations that get in the way of them following common career tips like “take a seat at the table,” “speak with authority” and “interject at meetings.”
Reasons to avoid the spotlight
Many of the women participating in the study told Ballakrishnen, Fielding-Singh and Magliozzi that they felt a double bind: If they worked on the sidelines, they could be overshadowed by their colleagues and overlooked for job promotions. But having a more assertive presence in the office, many women thought, could also backfire.
Instead, these women adopted a strategy that the researchers called “intentional invisibility,” a risk-averse, conflict-avoidant approach to navigating unequal workplaces.
While women in the study recognized that being less visible in the office could hurt their odds of a promotion or other career opportunities, they acknowledged that violating feminine norms – like being assertive or authoritative when they are expected to be nice, collaborative and communal – could have the same effect.