Are Women Avoiding the Spotlight At Work to Look More Agreeable?

Who doesn’t love being in the limelight at the office? Visibility offers one all sorts of perks and can even help rise through the ranks, however, research reveals that a majority of women would prefer the opposite route. Published in the Sociological Perspectives magazine, this phenomenon among working women has been termed as “intentional invisibility”. Whether its the fear of coming across as too strong, or being labeled as the “queen bee”, women are increasingly afraid of standing out too much at the workplace. 

Working women seemed to be torn between feminine norms and their career drive

Over the duration of two years, sociologists Devon Magliozzi, Priya Fielding-Singh, and Swethaa Ballakrishnen of Standford University discovered that being visible in one’s workplace is paramount to an employee’s advancement and success. However, this reads very differently among working women and shockingly, popular career advice like “take a seat at the table,” “lean in” and “speak up,” was actually regarded as more of a hindrance than a boost for them. With 86  participants, they observed 36 discussion groups and 15 program-wide meetings and closely studied women sharing their workplace battles and biases and found just this. Working women seemed to be torn between feminine norms and their career drive. Many shared how they held back from exercising their authority because colleagues and managers expected them to collaborative team players even though they knew that staying silent would hurt their prospects for promotions. Adopting a low-risk and zero-conflict strategy to be agreeable at work, they practiced “intentional invisibility”.

The problem is that the workplace is simply not a level playing field for men and women

Co-author Priya Fielding-Singh writes, “Women in our study chose this strategy from a limited set of options.” And she isn’t wrong because time and again women have been told that they simply cannot have it all. Also, it makes matters worse when famous women leaders have spoken about it; former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi famously said in 2014 that “Because there was no clear path to having it all, many chose to prioritize authenticity and conflict reduction at work and home… And I try all kinds of coping mechanisms.” Therefore to ensure that the chances of conflict at work become little to none, women would rather increase their friendly relationships at work. Due to this, many also refuse to join in healthy competition at work, “she didn’t feel like she could compete — nor did she necessarily want to.” The problem is that the workplace is simply not a level playing field for men and women and most women will find that they are at a disadvantage. The truth is gender is always operating in the background at work and people either benefit or are at a disadvantage because of it.

Some women do see assertive behavior as attention-seeking which could hurt their perception

“Being big” at work can be useful and helpful to both men and women, however, people often associate this quality with being masculine than feminine. Though “being big” comes more naturally to some people than to others, it comes more easily to men. On the other hand, women often worry about being their authentic selves at all times, making their actions converge with their ethics. A mid-level manager said, “Real leaders don’t really have to say what their title is, or have to brag about their accolades or whatever. It is just inherent, and your work should speak for itself.” So, character markers like being big and self -promotion were huge signs of over-compensation for them. Some women do see assertive behavior as attention-seeking which could hurt their perception. Today, many organizations’ leadership models are just these which promote a very masculinized style. 

Hence, workplaces need to rethink and reinvent the way they assign work and reward employees to ensure that certain people aren’t left out. How often have women been told that they need to change and adapt in order to get fair treatment, though this is true, it often holds no weight if conditions in workplaces are unfair. Therefore, it is time, though a little late for organizations to step up, women employees cannot be stuck within a double bind. The study also said that “researchers have begun to converge on the argument that it is pervasive, structural problems that are at the root of women’s underrepresentation. This argument has pushed scholarship toward “subtle” and “unseen” barriers as a way of explaining the scarcity of women in positions of senior leadership.” The very definition of leadership must go through a much-needed overhaul. How many organizations in India have put forth processes that support employees while also ensuring that company policies and behavior promote gender equality?

Image credit: The Economic Times

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