How to Overcome the ‘Double Bind’

If women in the workplace are warm and nurturing, they are considered too soft. But when they lead with a take-charge attitude, they may be labeled too aggressive.

Tho Bella Dinh-Zarr, a former vice chair and acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, shares a perfect example of the stereotypes that keep women from rising to leadership positions: the difference in how men and women are perceived when they interrupt in a meeting. “At times, for the good of the organization, you need to interject when you have an important perspective that will affect a decision. But if I interrupt, I may easily be perceived as pushy. Yet if a man does it, he’s seen as having something important to say,” explains Dinh-Zarr, who has also worked in the private sector and in private philanthropy. She’s currently spending a year abroad and doing pro bono work.

Defining the Issue

Dinh-Zarr’s observation gets to the heart of the double bind, or what National Public Radio labels the catch-22—the contrast in cultural norms around male and female behavior that have been around for ages.

Katherine Phillips, a professor of organizational management at Columbia University, explains the phenomenon in the New York Times: “If [women are] perceived as nice and warm and nurturing, as they’re expected to be, they don’t show what it takes to move into a leadership position. But when they take charge to get things done, they’re often seen as angrier or more aggressive than men. It’s like a tightrope women are asked to walk: Veer just a bit one way or the other, and they may fall off.”

Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to advance women in business, has released a report titled “Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t” that presents in-depth research on the subject. “The double bind applies in almost every area of the workplace; you encounter these double standards where men are viewed more positively for exactly the same behavior that women exhibit in any meeting,” notes Jennifer Thorpe-Moscon, vice president of Catalyst’s Research Data and Innovation Lab.

The stereotypes continue because of the pervasiveness of unconscious bias, Thorpe-Moscon explains. “Whether they realize it or not, people have biases based on gender. This is also true related to other dimensions of difference, like race and ethnicity. Differences can intersect as well, so there are also people with multiple marginalized identities,” she says.

Sharon Brogdon, head of diversity and inclusion at RetailMeNot, agrees that biases are wider than one may think initially. “By considering intersectionality, you realize that this challenge in the workplace is further exacerbated for women of color [including Asian women, adds Dinh-Zarr], and even men of color as they deal with the added biases and stereotypes associated with race and ethnicity,” Brogdon says.

Finding Solutions

What can women who find themselves caught in the double bind do?

Be aware and plan strategically
The first step is to be aware of the problem, says Brogdon. “As an African American woman, naval officer, and corporate leader in the tech industry, I have always known the landscape’s double standard and have had to navigate this issue long before the double bind had a name. I tell women that you must be aware and understand that this is often the environment in which you will have to navigate.”

Brogdon continues: “Be strategic about who the influential leaders are and who will make the decisions about the leadership position you seek. Ensure they know who you are and know your work. Find a sponsor to advocate on your behalf who can help elevate your visibility and your work. Most people of color will tell you of the necessity of being twice as good (or better) than others, and of continuously proving your capabilities. This exhausting cycle often ended in outcomes that weren’t in my favor, though I’d meticulously checked all the boxes. That experience is why I now coach awareness of the landscape and knowing your own worth as two critical skill sets.”

She cautions women to be clear on what it is they want and to understand the trade-offs and costs versus the rewards. “I encourage women who choose to pursue a leadership position to go for it with eyes wide open and to surround themselves with a circle of support. When they are confident, aware of the landscape, and know their own worth and critical skill sets, they are empowered to make better decisions about which challenge is worth navigating and which is not. That puts them back in control. And most importantly, once they have made it to a leadership position, they should ensure that they sponsor others and advocate for those behind them,” she adds.

Analyze the circumstances

After leading the CIO group at Carlyle, an investment firm, Georgette Kiser moved into an operating executive position and is now advising the firm. She suggests that women analyze the circumstances when they experience the double bind. “Ask yourself, ‘Is it about me, or the situation I’m in, or is it because people have unconscious bias?’ I try to get women to think about it that way and resist blaming unconscious bias as a first response. I first take accountability for myself and ask, ‘What did I do that is not allowing me to influence the situation the way I want? How do I go back and influence it differently?’”

Be who you are
Dinh-Zarr suggests that women remember to be true to themselves. “Treat the world as though it’s fair even though you know that’s not the case. Don’t do a disservice to the smart, competent person you are because you’re afraid of being seen as aggressive on one hand or nurturing on the other,” she says. She’s held social events in her office, such as special lunches and Halloween and Lunar Moon parties, and isn’t afraid of appearing soft or doing “what is expected of a woman,” she says. Dinh-Zarr doesn’t plan to stop doing what she enjoys.

Kiser has also tried to get women to consider that maybe the position just isn’t a good fit, especially when they feel they’re in a situation where they don’t have a voice. That happened to Dinh-Zarr early in her career. She was fired from a position because, her superiors said, she “spoke up too much,” which was undoubtedly the result of being a confident, assertive woman who felt she had something to say. “They told me I just wasn’t a good fit for the role.” Looking back, she concludes the role wasn’t a good fit for her.

Speak up and step in
Kiser had a number of male sponsors during her rise at T. Rowe Price, a previous employer, which she says may mean she had it easier than many women. “If someone took credit in a meeting for something I had just said, I’d say, ‘Guys, I thought we just spoke about this. I said it earlier and John just said the same thing.’ I’d make a point of saying that so it got out there,” she says. She tells women who come to her for advice, or when she speaks to groups, “Don’t just let it pass when it happens to you. Step up and say something like, ‘I think I mentioned this five minutes ago, and I’m glad John mentioned it, also. Let’s do this.’”

In situations in which she sees (or just knows) that a woman has been “wronged,” Kiser will meet with her privately about what happened and what the woman could have done and could still do, or she’ll talk with the man “who needs to be educated” and try and get him to understand what he did or said that wasn’t acceptable.

Thorpe-Moscon, the Catalyst executive, stresses that it’s important for everyone to get things out in the open. “If we don’t talk about these issues, people who aren’t experiencing them will always stay outside of awareness. I don’t want to suggest the burden should be on the people who are experiencing this bias; we all have to talk about it when it happens to others. If we can be allies for each other and speak up and step in when we see other people being victims, we can make a difference in improving our workplaces and each other’s experiences,” she says.

Kiser has taken the ultimate step when she could and attempted to ensure that companies she works for have effective policies to disallow the double bind from operating. For example, she was privy to people’s salaries when she moved into management.

“I was a little shocked to see they weren’t equal between men and women at the same level,” she says. “I told HR, ‘It’s your responsibility to see that there’s parity. This is your role—you should be saying something to upper management when these things occur.’ It takes upper management to hold themselves accountable.”

An excerpt from the Catalyst report conveys how important Kiser’s attitude and actions are when it comes to addressing the double bind: “Ultimately, it is not women’s leadership styles that need to change but the structures and perceptions that must keep up with today’s changing times. Companies versed in negotiating complex social and financial interactions must help employees see that stereotypes, like first impressions, are mutable—and not truths cast in stone.” DW


Pat Olsen’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Business, Hemispheres, and other publications.

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