HomeLearning CenterThe Double Bind for Women—Being a Razor Blade and a Cupcake

The Double Bind for Women—Being a Razor Blade and a Cupcake

Originally published by Jennifer McCollum for SHRM

One of the most difficult manifestations of externalized bias is the double bind for women. It’s a constant tightrope we walk.

We must balance the irreconcilable demands of meeting societal expectations for women—demonstrating female characteristics, like being compassionatewarmcommunicative and collaborative—with the expectations for leaders, which are dominated by male characteristics of being forcefulassertive and dominant.

The dilemma is that when women display the male characteristics of “taking charge,” they are seen as competent but aren’t liked. Conversely, when we display the female characteristics of “taking care,” we are viewed as less competent.

Ideally, men and women alike would incorporate both styles of leadership—taking charge and taking care—into the evolving expectations of what the most effective leaders do. However, the current external bias forces only women to be seen as either taking charge or taking care rather than placing the same expectation on men to embrace both.

The double bind is exhausting for women. This externalized bias of strong leadership qualities being perceived as “male” holds women to a higher standard than it does men. It requires us to spend much more time at work proving ourselves as competent while hiding or downplaying the natural strengths we bring to leadership to live up to the male-dominated stereotypes of leadership.

It was decades after I began my career that I realized how this external bias had trapped me in every leadership role. Today, when I hear anyone call a woman leader too “aggressive” or “ambitious,” I take a deep breath and tell my best double-bind story.

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