Women are opting to stay below the radar at work over concerns that asserting themselves may lead to negative consequences, according to a recent Stanford study. 
In the exercise, three sociologists spent two years immersed in a female professional development scheme at a large, US non-profit, where they conducted interviews with 86 participants and observed 36 discussion groups – plus 15 programme-wide meetings.
In a statement, Stanford said: “Many of the women participating in the study told [the authors] that they felt a double bind: If they worked on the side-lines, 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.”
The University noted: “While women in the study recognised 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.”
As a result, the study pointed out, “To craft careers that felt rewarding, women sought to reduce the chances for interpersonal conflict and to increase opportunities for friendly relationships within their work teams.”
One woman interviewed for the study said: “I was very uncomfortable with the word ‘leadership’ until I was able to redefine it for myself.” Co-author Swethaa Ballakrishnen stressed: “Organisations should realise that asking women to be visible without recognising the toll that such visibility takes is not really levelling the playing field. To be truly equal workplaces, organisations need to rethink the ways in which they assign and reward visibility.” 
How should they handle this?
Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Pieces of research like this are ever so interesting, because they appear to assume that there is one, corrective answer. And, indeed, in this one, there’s a single definition of success, too – namely, visibility through seniority. And if you’re not visible, then you’re somehow lesser. Certainly, if you’re into achievement, then you won’t mind visibility. If power is what motivates you, then you will want that visibility. But if we consider what motivates a broad cross-section of people, and how they may picture success, their priorities may be rather different.”
Cooper points out: “If success to you is about affiliation, or about security, then you have every right to feel successful if they are the rewards you have achieved. So we have to think about what we reward, and what we value. And of course, squeaky wheels get the most oil: it’s so much easier to recognise and reward those who constantly remind you they’re there. So for me, the question that emerges from this study is not, ‘How can we help women to become more visible?’ but ‘How can we reward people for achievement, even if they don’t stand up and sing and dance about it?’
“Plus: how can we create a working environment where disagreement is actually not personal… where you can disagree with a colleague, and that doesn’t affect the quality of the relationship? And what we’re talking about here is really valuing people as individuals, and seeing that we need diversity of views – we want people to have conflicting thoughts and opinions, because that’s how we can be sure that we’ve covered all the bases, particularly in fields such as risk evaluation and project management.”
Cooper adds: “In fact, it’s quite surprising the extent to which this research is more about reward and communication than it is about gender!”
For further thoughts about dealing with conflict, check out these learning resources from the Institute