Published by the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, University of Canberra

Research and Stories through a Gendered Lens

Intentional invisibility – women need to be seen & heard

Oct 26, 2020 | News, Feature

I worked in politics as a staffer for a number of years, and in politics there’s an unwritten rule: don’t poke your head above the parapet. 

In other words, you don’t have a profile. You don’t state your opinions publicly. Let alone have an active LinkedIn or Twitter profile. Your work is behind the scenes.

That’s the way political staffing works, and I’m not advocating to change that.

It wasn’t until I left politics to work in the corporate sector that I realised the ‘don’t poke your head above the parapet’ conditioning ran deep.

The problem is, old habits die hard. It wasn’t until I left politics to work in the corporate sector that I realised the ‘don’t poke your head above the parapet’ conditioning ran deep.

Just a few days into a new job, the chief executive and I were on an external conference call. About five minutes into the call, I put the phone on mute, so the other person couldn’t hear me, and gave the chief executive some advice.

To the female CEO’s credit, she immediately looked at me and said, “You don’t need to mute it. You’re allowed to speak, you know? I want to hear what you’ve got to say”.

Of course she did. She was paying me for my advice. Plus, she was the kind of leader who understood that giving employees a share of voice — internally and externally  — is key to establishing a workforce that’s engaged and productive.

My experience in politics, where keeping a low profile was the modus operandi, had taught me a series of strategies to navigate the workplace while remaining largely behind the scenes.

It’s not that I didn’t have opinions to share. Psychometric testing confirmed that my key strengths were my perspective and ability to communicate, but my experience in politics, where keeping a low profile was the modus operandi, had taught me a series of strategies to navigate the workplace while remaining largely behind the scenes.

And it turns out I’m not alone. Research undertaken by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University found that many women consciously reject visibility.

In 2013, researchers Priya Fielding-Singh, Devon Magliozzi and Swethaa Ballakrishnen found that women in their study were “keenly aware of the rewards of visibility and knew that being noticed was a conventional strategy for professional advancement”. But still, “many women consciously rejected that strategy”. The researchers call this phenomenon “intentional invisibility”, finding “women report intentionally remaining behind the scenes in attempts to avoid backlash and maintain a professional status quo”.

They argue some women adopt risk-averse and conflict-avoidant strategies to “feel authentic, to manage competing expectations in the office, and balance work and familial responsibilities”.

This rings true for a number of the female leaders I’ve worked with. They regularly describe wanting more exposure and opportunities, but they are either too busy, they fear being judged or considered inauthentic, and the whole concept of sharing their expertise and voice externally brings with it a side dish of self-doubt.

The problem with that, of course, is that women can’t afford to be invisible. In a year that has disrupted the economic fortunes of women, it’s vital women have access to opportunities right now.

While research consistently shows that that pervasive, structural problems underpin women’s underrepresentation at work, there are a number of strategies and mindset reframes we can employ to become more visible at work.

Assess the cost of not speaking up: As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” So let go of, ‘what will people think of me?’ and ask yourself, why does this matter and who can you help by speaking up?

Understand how the brain works: Did you know, as far as the brain is concerned, emotional and social threats are just as scary as real-life physical threats? For many of us, the thought of speaking up, or the emotional pain of being socially excluded from the tribe, is just as scary as being followed by a shady character down a dark alley. In both situations, the brain triggers a cascade of neurophysiological activity that re-organises its resources and attention to focus on keeping you safe. It can rear its head as nerves, anxiety, self-critical thoughts, or a panic attack. The sooner you learn that these internal thoughts are just the brain’s way of keeping you safely inside your comfort zone, the sooner you can tame the feeling and start speaking up.

Tell more stories: We all know how to tell a story. Research tells us that the human brain is wired to find stories more engaging and memorable than simple statements and facts. So next time you’re trying to find the courage to speak up, simply tell a story. Sharing your lived experience of an issue is hard to argue with.

Don’t discount your ideas and opinions: People consistently underestimate the originality of their ideas and point of view, according to research from INSEAD Business School. One reason we do this? We tend to think that everyone is thinking the same way we are. Turns out they aren’t, or at least not nearly as often as we assume. ⁠So before you throw that idea into your mental dustbin, remember you have an internal bias and choose to share your point of view anyway.

Treat speaking up like an experiment: Next time you find an issue or cause you feel strongly about, speak up and treat it like an experiment or as a data gathering exercise. You’ll either succeed or you’ll learn something. How else will you know what is going to make a difference or not?

Remember, people want leaders to take a stand: Audiences are craving authentic voices and leadership on the big issues. The Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual survey on trust, found that 92% of survey participants want CEOs and leaders to speak out on the big issues such as climate change and diversity.

People want to hear your voice so start speaking up. In my experience, the feelings you get from actually speaking up and sharing your voice offsets any negatives.

Amy Springhall is a communications strategist. She helps organisations and their leaders become visible at a time when people have our attention, not brands. You can follow her work on LinkedIn here or by visiting


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