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Overcoming the Double Bind for Women

Updated: Jan 2

I hear from women all the time about the feedback they have received around their communication style. Too often women get feedback such as, “I was told to use please and thank you more,” or “my boss says my tone was too aggressive when I asked a direct question during a meeting.”

As a woman, I have received my fair share of questionable feedback. For example, when I was working in Corporate America, following a meeting about potential layoffs, my boss pulled me aside to tell me I did not smile enough during it. I pushed back that the topic was one that would not be appropriate for me to be smiling during. She insisted that I was to smile more at meetings in the future no matter what the topic to avoid other’s thinking I had an “attitude problem.” Unfortunately telling women to smile more is not uncommon. Rarely are men given this same feedback.

We see this play out repeatedly in other ways. Women are told they are shrill, unpleasant or aggressive if they take on what society often sees as a traditionally male communication style of being more direct. In fact, one researcher out of NYU, Madeline Heilman, has repeatedly found in her research that even when given a description of a leader and their communication style that is exactly the same, the female will be seen as less likeable by participants versus the male leader. On the other hand, if women do not come across as confident and assertive, as we expect leaders to do, women can be seen as less competent than their male peers. This is the female double bind.

Simply put, research continually shows that women are considered either likable or competent, but traditionally not both at the same time. This happens often in leadership roles that do not align with how we as a society expect women to show up. For most of recorded history, women have been expected to be helpful, kind and supportive members of society. This can be at odds with our traditional ideas of leadership.

But “wait!”, you say, “I haven’t had this experience.” Great! Good on you. But many, many others have. And maybe you have, but never noticed because it is just the way things are. It has not been questioned. Either way, it never hurts to be more informed on this issue.

So, what is the solution? Below are some ways to help change this dynamic.

  • Be Mindful About Feedback - A general rule of thumb when giving feedback to someone who identifies as a woman is that if you would say the same comment to a man, then perhaps it is not a gender issue. Take my example earlier. If my boss had also given the same feedback to my male colleagues whom she managed at the time and who were also not smiling at the meeting, then it would not have been about my gender. But having checked in with them, I know she did not. Out of room of non-smilers, my boss singled out the only female on her team for that feedback. It would still have been poorly offered feedback, but it would have been not based on my gender necessarily.

  • Find a Female Mentor - We have to do better at supporting and helping grow more confident and competent female leaders. We have to elevate and celebrate one another more. Try to find a mentor who can help you navigate these dynamics and build in more ways to manage this. Finding a mentor can be tough, but start by thinking about women you respect, admire or know have been successful in navigating challenging aspects of their careers. It is a good bet that if they are a leader in an organization, they have had to navigate these types of challenges over the years and can help you do the same. If you are someone who wants to mentor others, look out for women that might be struggling or that you think you might be able to help and ask them to grab a coffee with you. Or you can join groups or online platforms that will link you to those that are looking for a mentor or mentee.

  • Be an Ally - For those that identify as male, take a look at how you are communicating to others, especially women. Do you change your tone? Highlight different aspects of their work than you would their male counterparts? See them as more or less likeable depending on their competency? Are you supporting them and speaking up when you notice these issues? Check in with women on your team. Do they have any of these concerns? Ask how you can better show up for them in a way that they are comfortable with. Do not decide what the solution is without input from the person having the issue. Many well-meaning men escalate a situation that the woman who asked for support around it did not want. She is then stuck having to navigate a sometimes even trickier situation with colleagues or even HR. Instead, help the women on your team be seen by yourself and others more. Simply building awareness around this topic can be helpful in becoming a better ally for women in terms of the double bind.

  • Work with a Coach - Find someone you can share these challenges with that can give you tangible ideas on how to manage your unique situation. While you might meet with a mentor less frequently, you can work consistently with a coach who can guide you through a challenging time and help you navigate strategically on a regular basis.

  • Do Not Let Others Decide Your Worth - This is easier said than done but if someone is looking to knock you down without merit, realize that is most likely more about them than you. Think of this as someone else showing you their cards. “Oh, you want to make me feel smaller? You must have your own insecurities which I am somehow triggering.” Try not to internalize the comments or nonverbal behaviors as being a representation of your worth or value. Additionally, it does not matter the gender of the person engaging in these biased behaviors. Women also actively participate in these dynamics, while there are men who rarely, if ever, displayed these biases. This is a much deeper societal issue that both men and women, often unwittingly, perpetuate.

  • Utilize Emotional Agility - This concept, developed by Susan David, can give you tools that help externalize your feelings rather than internalizing them. So instead of thinking or saying, “they don’t respect me,” try externalizing it as, “I am having the thought that I am not being respected.” The first one is holding the feeling or thought as intrinsically a part of who you are. The second names the thought as simply that, a passing thought or feeling that can come and go depending on the context or situation.


If you take anything away from this post, hopefully it is that all of this starts with awareness. Begin to notice how you personally show up and work on finding ways to not perpetuate the double bind for women. Small steps can lead to big changes no matter who you are or how you identify. Be the change you want to see.



Kealy Spring is a Leadership Coach and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (#93512) in CA.

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