These women adopted a strategy that the researchers called “intentional invisibility,” a risk-averse, conflict-avoiding approach to navigating unequal workplaces, according to the findings published in the journal Sociological Perspectives.
Many women in the study, the researchers wrote, found that “they can only pursue their ambitions to a point to ensure stability”.
“Women in our study chose this strategy from a limited set of options,” said one of the researchers, Priya Fielding-Singh.
“Because there was no clear path to having it all, many chose to prioritize authenticity and conflict reduction at work and home,” she added.
For the study, the researchers focused on a women’s professional development programme at a large non-profit organisation in the US.
They conducted interviews with 86 programme participants and observed 36 discussion groups and 15 programme-wide meetings where many women shared the barriers and biases they encountered at their organisation 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”.
Many of the women participating in the study told the researchers 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.
In the end, the authors said, it is organisations – not the women embedded within them – that need to adapt to create gender equality.