The Double Bind: A Leadership Challenge for Women in Business

Posted on Aug 22, 2019 11:01 AM


Working women are often confronted with double binds caused by gender stereotypes and norms about gender roles, which can hinder women in business from successfully occupying positions of authority. A double bind is a situation in which a person making a decision receives conflicting messages that make it the case that no matter what the person does, they'll be doing something that will be thought of as wrong. The contradictory nature of these situations is not always immediately apparent, so other people may not see the dilemma caused by the double bind. Also, for a dilemma to truly be a double bind, the person making the decision must not have the ability to control the undesirable consequences that each option presents.

Often with double binds facing women in the workplace, one option happens to align well with stereotypes and social expectations. This may sometimes seem or even feel like the "easier" choice because it is more expected, and the negative consequences are often less obvious. However, stereotypical choices further perpetuate those stereotypes, and people faced with a double bind who make decisions that are stereotype-consistent may question whether they "gave in" and ignored what they truly wanted to do.

Alternatives to the "easy" choice are frequently counter-stereotypical; they involve making decisions that go against social expectations. When people appear to resist social norms, they may experience backlash from others who dislike that behavior.

Research conducted by Catalyst in 2007 identified a powerful double bind that arises for women leaders. Stereotypes about women suggest they are caring, emotional, and less aggressive and assertive than men. When women behave in ways that seem to confirm these stereotypes, they may be perceived as weak or ineffectual leaders. They are likely to be considered likable but not competent. The people they lead or manage may have positive feelings about the woman in charge, but they may not respect or trust her. Women leaders whose behavior is consistent with stereotypes also risk being overlooked or belittled.

On the other hand, if women behave in counter-stereotypical ways — when they act "like men" — they may be viewed as competent but unlikeable — a backlash against behavior that is viewed as unfeminine. One study conducted by Professor Brescoll of Yale University found that men who spoke more in meetings were rated by their peers to be 10 percent more competent than men who did not, whereas women who spoke frequently were rated 14 percent lower than those who did not.

How Can We Fight Double Binds?  

  • Evaluate men and women using the same standards. When you make a judgment of a woman leader's likeability or evaluate her qualifications, consider whether you would reach the same conclusion if she were a man. Be aware of stereotypes influencing your judgments, especially if you are making decisions relating to hiring, promoting, or evaluating employees.
  • Highlight the accomplishments and qualifications of women at work. Take credit for your own work, and accept compliments when you receive them
  • Acknowledge unfair treatment if possible. If your coworkers make biased judgments, ask them to consider whether gender may be influencing their attitudes. Many people don't realize they are holding men and women to different standards.
  • A study conducted by the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that women who were able to switch between assertiveness and a more passive demeanor, depending on the circumstance, were ultimately more successful than other women and men. Being aware of your environment, and remaining sensitive to how others are responding to you, can help you to subtly adapt your demeanor in strategic ways.

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Topics: Women In Business

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