An article published this week in Harvard Business Review highlights a dilemma for women in the workplace.

They know their career advancement depends, in large part, on their ability to step up and be recognized for their accomplishments. An abundance of research shows visibility is critical to career advancement.

As the authors put it, visibility “allows employees to demonstrate their skills, land prominent assignments, and build strategic relationships.”

Perhaps even more than mastery over a body of knowledge, technical competence, business results, or leadership ability, visibility and the recognition it brings are critical for career success.

But for many women in the workplace, being visible just isn’t worth it.

At the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, the authors conducted in-depth interviews, observed discussion groups, and sat in on meetings – and came away with the conclusion that many women were backpedaling their careers because being visible was too risky.

That’s because despite all the advances made by women in the workplace, the qualities associated with visibility – being seen as ambitious, claiming credit for your achievements, being assertive and self promoting – made women unlikeable.

This are the very same characteristics identified with executive-style leadership – but they clash with the way our society wants women to behave.

As one woman in the study put it: “One of my personal goals and self-learning over the course of the past 35 years is that I had to moderate my very strong personality and strong opinions on things.”

The old stereotypes are unfair. But still, women hold back.

That’s exactly why Tiny Fey wrote Bossypants. That’s why Tory Burch created #EmbraceAmbition.

In the article, the authors suggest ways organizations can make it easier for women to assert themselves without penalty:

Value unconventional forms of leadership – so that aggressive, executive-type behavior is not the only way to advance professionally.

Fight implicit bias – to undercut the penalty against women who don’t conform to stereotypical female behavior.

Create policies to help women with responsibilities outside of work – because women still bear a disproportionate share of household and caregiving responsibilities.

Companies should pay attention. When a woman curtails her ambition for fear of being unlikeable, it not only stunts her own professional growth – it undermines the growth of her organization. She shortchanges herself and her employer.

A company’s talent is its most valuable asset. If companies are not supporting their women so they can rise to their full potential, they’re not maximizing the use of their assets. How long can companies get away with that?

Women are corporate America’s most underutilized asset. Companies that figure out how to reverse the visibility bias and take full advantage of their female talent will gain a competitive advantage and leap ahead.


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