This case study at a non-profit organization found that women professionals use an “intentional invisibility” strategy at work in order to manage gender bias and gender-unequal expectations. They intentionally act avoidant and place themselves behind the scenes at work, which helps them feel authentic; maintain work-life balance; and deal with the “double bind”, where women are penalized for being assertive at work even though assertiveness is a valued trait for leaders. Although this strategy allows women to deal with gender inequality at work and at home, it may hinder their professional advancement. This study suggests that gender parity in high-level professional roles requires reducing workplace biases and changing organizational processes that hinder women.
While women are well-represented in the paid labour force, they remain underrepresented in professional leadership roles. Research has suggested that there are many structural problems that prevent women from advancement throughout their careers. One barrier is the “double bind”: women are penalized when they enact masculine behaviours, such as assertion and self-promotion, even though these traits may be necessary to advance professionally. Another barrier is that women are disproportionately responsible for care and domestic work, and organizations still view “ideal workers” as those who have no responsibilities besides work. This study investigated the strategies that women use to navigate these constraints.
The data for this study was collected over two years at a large non-profit organization in the United States. The researchers acted as nonintrusive observers and interviewers of women employees who participated in discussion circles about gender awareness and gender bias as part of their organization’s professional development program. The employees were women of diverse ages, races, family compositions and career stages, but most were highly educated, middle to upper class professionals. The researchers interviewed 45 participants and observed 51 meetings.
The researchers found that women used “intentional invisibility” at work, a set of strategies to navigate the workplace and achieve their career goals while remaining behind the scenes and low-profile. When encountering bias, backlash and other structural gender inequality, these strategies helped them avoid conflict, feel authentic within their roles, and find work-life balance.
Avoiding conflict: The women in this study made themselves invisible to avoid conflict, such as gender biases from supervisors and colleagues or double standards in their performance evaluations. For instance, some described being competent but quiet because they worked in a men-dominated field and did not want to be viewed as bossy or too forward. One woman minimized her femininity by returning to work after maternity leave very quickly.
Feeling authentic: Many women in this study associated visibility with aggressiveness, and rejected using this behaviour because they saw it as overly masculine and inauthentic for their personalities. They disagreed with self-promotion tactics and preferred non-hierarchical, collaborative working and leadership styles.
Finding work-life balance: Women who had children were most likely to embrace invisibility in order to ensure stable employment and a stable family life. They took low-prestige and low-stress positions in order to accommodate family needs such as childcare or partners who wanted to take on high-risk, high-income positions that required many hours. Women who did not have children had fewer concerns about job security and flexibility.
Workplaces must create environments that do not put women in a double bind—The women in this study enacted invisibility partly because they believed they would be viewed as overbearing or bossy if they were more assertive. Workplace leaders must recognize if they are making advancement decisions based on gender bias and cultivate environments that do not penalize employees for not adhering to gender roles.
Workplaces must value different work and leadership styles—This research showed how women enacted invisibility because they did not want to take on stereotypically masculine leadership styles that did not fit their personalities. Organizations should value non-hierarchical and collaborative leadership and work styles, which could be just as or even more effective than hierarchical styles.
Family dynamics can pose a significant career barrier for women—Some women in the study reported taking on low-risk, low-prestige roles in order to accommodate the work of their men partners. In order for women to advance at work, it is important for families to interrogate and balance the dynamics that result in barriers for women.
Ballakrishnen, S., Fielding-Singh, P. and Magliozzi, D. (2018). Intentional Invisibility: Professional Women and the Navigation of Workplace Constraints. Sociological Perspectives
62(1): 23-41. https://doi.org/10.1177/0731121418782185