Breaking Out of the Double Bind

Women seeking a path to leadership need to laser focus on who they are, where they want to go, and how to get there.

Dr. Rosina L. Racioppi

As I work with leading corporations, I am continually struck by patterns that get in the way of the advancement of diverse female talent. Many behaviors are deeply ingrained in age-old, male-dominated corporate cultures, and strategies for changing these cultures are the subject of a variety of outstanding
articles, books, and white papers.

My focus here is to provide immediately actionable guidance to the women in organizations struggling with these patterns. In my work, I have learned that there are three proven strategies that women themselves can initiate to both advance their careers and chip away at the attitudes holding themselves and their female colleagues back:

  1. Find your focus
  2. Forge the right relationships
  3. Require career-advancing feedback

Combating the “double bind”

According to Catalyst and numerous other organizations and publications, women, and especially women of color, are in a double bind when trying to advance to leadership roles. Catalyst sums it up this way: “Gender stereotypes create a no-win situation for women leaders. Women are seen as competent or likable but rarely both.” Of course, good leaders need to be both­—and able to juggle the two as situations demand.

The three strategies I’ve highlighted above are antidotes to this double bind. They allow you to present yourself as both competent and likeable; as take-charge and sensitive. They will help you forge relationships with corporate influencers who will advocate for you as someone possessing the qualities of a top-level leader. Admittedly empowering and scary at the same time, these strategies also allow you to be the lead player in advancing your career, no longer waiting for things around you to change (not that we should ever give up on fighting for leveling the playing field for women).

Let’s take a more detailed look at each of these strategies and how to make them work for you.

1. Find your focus: Women seeking a path to leadership need to laser focus on who they are, where they want to go, and how to get there. Too often, women are all over the map, sabotaging their own advancement, trying to fit in by taking on personas that are not authentic.

Some tips for finding your focus:

  • Ask yourself where you want to be in two years, in five years.
  • Define the two or three skill sets you bring to the organization that positively impact the company and its customers.
  • Assess what is important to your organization and how that meshes with your skills and your values.
  • Create a plan that dovetails your skills, values, and requirements with the organization’s.
  • If there’s no alignment, consider whether staying authentic requires a change of strategy or a change of organizations.

2. Forge the right relationships: In my leadership role at WOMEN Unlimited, I have interacted with thousands of women participants in our development programs. Many enter the programs under the misguided notion that doing an excellent job is all that’s needed to get ahead. Not the case. Many years ago, the founder of our organization said it best: “It’s not what you know; it’s who knows you know.” Relationships that both advance your career and help you stay focused and authentic are foundations to long-term success.

A few pointers:

  • Don’t be afraid to reach out to those who can help. Male colleagues do it all the time.
  • Strategically identify mentors. Seek mentors who are internal and external to the organization, and who broaden your perspective about both yourself and the company. Make sure they’re not all “just like you.” Interact with your mentors frequently and honestly.
  • Develop advocates in leadership roles who appreciate your contributions and will sing your praises to other corporate influencers.
  • Cultivate diverse networks both inside and outside your organization.
  • Be open and curious, not defensive, when told what you don’t want to hear.

3. Require career-advancing feedback: Much research shows that women don’t receive the same frank, career-boosting feedback as their male colleagues. The reasons are many and complex, especially regarding feedback to women of color. Often, managers are concerned about saying the wrong thing. They fear their comments will be perceived as sexist, racist, or both. As a result, women don’t get the feedback they need to enhance their chances of advancement.

How to get the right kind of feedback:

  • First and foremost, speak up and ask for specific comments and suggestions. Don’t settle for perfunctory generalizations, either positive or negative.
  • Don’t allow feedback to be limited to annual or semiannual reviews. Ask for it often.
  • Seek out feedback not just from your manager but from other corporate leaders. For example, following a presentation, ask how it might have been improved.
  • Work to ensure that your boss does not see you as defensive. Make it clear that you are looking for suggestions that will be of value to both you and the organization.

The power of being intentional

The three success strategies I’ve pinpointed bring with them benefits that go beyond your own career advancement. As you intentionally move forward with these strategies, you will also be expanding the mind-sets of your colleagues, your managers, and your corporate leadership, whatever their gender or ethnicity. You will be inching them and your organization toward a more inclusive environment. Talk about a win-win! DW

Dr. Rosina L. Racioppi is president and CEO of WOMEN Unlimited Inc., a women’s organization for mentoring, education, and networking, which develops leaders who deliver results by partnering with Fortune 1000 companies to create a workplace culture that supports gender parity and inclusion.

Much research shows that women don’t receive the same frank, career- boosting feedback as their male colleagues.

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