Women, Leadership, and the Double Bind

https://triplecrownleadership.com/women-leadership-double-bind/Women, Leadership, and the Double Bind

This week, I participated in an event on “Exploring the Strength of Women in Leadership” hosted by my alma mater, Claremont McKenna College (CMC), with presentations from Dr. Sherylle Tan (CMC Professor and Director of Internships and Research, Kravis Leadership Institute), Claudia Raigoza (Director of Project Management, Fiserv), and Jessica Dang (Head of Customer Experience, Vode Lighting), and moderation by Evan Rutter (Assistant Vice President for Alumni and Parent Relations, CMC).

The discussion covered many important topics that are highly relevant to all of us in the modern workforce and, of course, on International Women’s Day.

Here’s my take on some key points from the session as well as a quick look at some of the latest research.


Progress and Challenges for Women Leaders

Thankfully, there are signs of progress with women in the workplace. For example, in 2023 we saw the narrowest gender gap for workplace participation in U.S. history and an all-time high participation rate for mothers with young children, as well as a record number of women holding Fortune 500 CEO positions and sitting on boards. (1)

Even the research literature has been changing, evolving from the blunt scholarly question decades ago of whether women can lead effectively (!) to whether there are differences between the way women and men tend to lead, whether one is more effective (and in which settings), and why women are underrepresented in top management roles.

But still there’s much to be done. Currently, women account for only 23% of senior business roles in the U.S., according to Gallup research. Women with children are twice as likely as men with children to report having had three or more days in the past month when they weren’t able to perform their usual work responsibilities due to challenges with childcare (14% vs. 7%). Women are much more likely than men to report being expected to address unexpected childcare issues. And many women are working two jobs—caregiving and managing the household as well as working at their organization outside the home. (True, of course, for some men as well.) It’s a wicked challenge—and a recipe for stress, guilt, and burnout.

Even the way we think and talk about the issues is starting to change. We used to talk about the “glass ceiling” (preventing women from moving up after a certain level). But now there’s talk about a “glass escalator” (helping white men move up toward the top more quickly and easily) and a “leadership labyrinth” for women (a maze riddled with vexing challenges, with stereotypes and prejudice, gender differences, and education, training, and human capital challenges for women).

Indeed, there are challenges for women at several levels: individual, interpersonal, team, organizational, and societal.

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The Double Bind

The double bind, according to Dr. Tan, is “the idea that women must be feminine enough to be likable but also competent enough to be a good leader.” Essentially, women are caught between impossible standards.

Getting things done? Too pushy. Not likable enough. Too tenacious!
Supporting their team? Too soft, caring, and likable. Missing that edge!
Warm and compassionate? Not tough enough. You’ll get railroaded! Plus, these characteristics lead people to assume you have less competence. (Absurd.)
Assertive and direct? Too aggressive. Not ladylike. Unfeminine. People won’t like you.
Communicative and collaborative? Toughen up!
Dominant and forceful? Lighten up!

The point here is that it’s almost impossible to get it right. Women can’t win. It’s an impossible game, with ever-changing standards and biased perceptions.

We ask women to choose between being viewed as competent or being liked, between taking charge and taking care, because it’s impossible for them to be both.

Exhausting. Unfair. But all to real for so many.

Jennifer McCollum, CEO of Linkage (now part of SHRM), relates the time she found out her colleague remarked to her boss that she was “like a cupcake with a razor blade inside.” She later realized that it was “a perfect example of the double bind.” She observed, “A man would never be described that way.”

“We are all complex and multifaceted with different strengths, and we are all higher manifestations than the stereotypes we’re often reduced to. It is in honoring and integrating strengths across gender roles that all leaders will become more effective.”
-Jennifer McCollum, CEO, Linkage


Tips for Women Leaders Given These Challenges

  1. Know yourself well. Develop strong and deep self-awareness, including knowing your values.
  2. Trust your gut.
  3. Be authentic.
  4. Have a growth mindset.
  5. Keep helping your colleagues.
  6. Extend and build trust.
  7. Overcommunicate.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.


What Women Leaders Say They Wished They Knew Earlier

  1. Take care of yourself. Put your own oxygen mask on first before trying to help others. Without protecting their own wellbeing, everything else started to suffer.
  2. Beware “imposter syndrome”: the fear of being viewed as a fraud or undeserving of our successes. (This is a well-researched phenomenon that affects both men and women—but women more often.)
  3. You don’t have to know everything.
  4. Set boundaries.
  5. It’s okay to be vulnerable—and can help develop deeper connections—and to ask for help.
  6. It’s important to recruit allies and mentors.
  7. You can catch more flies with honey.


What Women Leaders Say They Wished Men Knew & Did

  1. In many cases, women have to be phenomenal multitaskers, all while making it look easy.
  2. Focus on the person first. We’re all human, each with challenges and struggles. Start with relationship.
  3. Recognize women’s potential.
  4. Support, celebrate, and promote women.
  5. Find opportunities that support their potential.
  6. Have their backs and fight for them.
  7. Recognize and address bias (e.g., in assignments) and negative stereotypes.
  8. Observe how women are often held to different standards. They’re often judged by higher standards. They have to prove themselves continually. And yet they receive fewer rewards in terms of salary, bonus, career advancement, and even recognition.
  9. Be more inclusive.
  10. Help ensure flexible work policies.


Tools for You

Alignment Scorecard

When organizations aren’t aligned, it can reduce performance dramatically and cause frustration and dysfunction. With this Alignment Scorecard, you can assess your organization’s level of alignment and make plans for improving it.


References & Research

(1) Economic Research, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, & U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (n.d.). FRED labor force participation rate. Bauer, L. & Wang, S. Y. (2023, Aug. 30). Prime-age women are going above and beyond in the labor market recovery. The Hamilton Project. Schaeffer, K. (2023, Sept. 27). The data on women leaders. Pew Research Center.

“In sum, empirical research supports small differences in leadership style and effectiveness between men and women. Women experience slight effectiveness disadvantages in masculine leader roles, whereas roles that are more feminine offer them some advantages. Additionally, women exceed men in the use of democratic or participatory styles, and they are more likely to use transformational leadership behaviors and contingent rewards, which are styles associated with contemporary notions of effective leadership…. In fact, the research on leadership competencies seems to indicate a slight leadership competence advantage for women. However, women are less likely to self-promote and negotiate than men, and women may avoid leadership positions where the group membership is majority male. Furthermore, research show a small gender difference such that women are more likely to focus on the welfare of others and ethical behavior….
In leadership roles, gender stereotypes are particularly damaging for women….
This prejudice against female leaders helps explain the numerous findings indicating less favorable attitudes toward female compared to male leaders, greater difficulty for women to attain top leadership roles, and greater difficulty for women to be viewed as effective in these roles.” -Peter Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice, 9th edition (SAGE Publications, 2022)


Additional Sources

  • Eagly and Carli, Through the Labyrinth: The Truth about How Women Become Leaders (Harvard Business School Press, 2007).
  • Eagly and Carli, “Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership,” Harvard Business Review, September 2007.
  • Ibarra, H., Ely, R., & Kolb, K. (2013, September). Women rising: The unseen barriers. Harvard Business Review, 61-66.
  • Ibrahim, Angelidis, and Tomic (2009). Managers’ attitudes toward codes of ethics: Are there gender differences. Journal of Business Ethics, 90, 343-353.
  • *Johnson, “What the Science Actually Says About Gender Gaps in the Workplace,” Harvard Business Online, August 17, 2017.
  • Klenke, Women and Leadership: A Contextual Perspective (Springer Publishing, 2004)
  • Northouse, Leadership: Theory and Practice (9th edition), chapter 14, “Gender and Leadership.”
  • Riggio, “Are Women Leaders More Ethical Than Men?” Psychology Today, May 17, 2013.
  • Riggio, “Do Men and Women Lead Differently?” Psychology Today, March 23, 2010.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, and TEDx speaker on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards written with his father, Bob Vanourek). Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

https://triplecrownleadership.com/women-leadership-double-bind/Women, Leadership, and the Double Bind

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