Avoiding the Spotlight at Work

by Nancy Ordman

Some professional women deliberately avoid seeking the spotlight at work. This behavior flies in the face of standard advice to speak up and push for recognition. What prompts this potentially career-damaging behavior? Can the impact be positive?

Recently published research from three Stanford sociologists offers insight into the practice of what they label “intentional invisibility” and the related career impacts. The researchers also explicated the subtle — and significant — message intentional invisibility sends to employers.

The Stanford study followed women involved in a large non-profit organization’s professional development program for two years. The women shared with the researchers some reasons why they consciously chose to stay in the background at work.

Uncomfortable with the required behaviors: Some felt uncomfortable adopting self-promoting behaviors that they identified as masculine. They experience such behavior as contrary to their own characters. Rather than call attention to their work they prefer to let their work speak for itself.

“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.”

Balancing work with life demands: Some women reduced visibility at work so they could carve out the time and energy they need in other areas of their lives. The researchers noted in particular that women who have children at home used this technique. By reducing stress at work — by working in a job with less responsibility, for example — they have more resources available at home.

Backlash: Respondents reported that putting oneself in the spotlight brings risks as well as rewards. Some male colleagues react badly to assertive female colleagues, creating uncomfortable conflict situations. 

Researcher Priya Fielding-Singh pointed out that the women in this study chose strategies from a limited set of alternatives.

“Because there was no clear path to having it all, many chose to prioritize authenticity and conflict reduction at work and home,” she pointed out. Institutions need to recognize that broadening choices for their female employees is just as important as building other aspects of gender equality. This study highlights the work that remains to be done to remove structural barriers to advancement.