Are you being punished for being assertive?

How to navigate the “double-bind”

Ever been called a witch – or a weakling? Women are often labeled (however unfairly) as being on one end of this spectrum or the other.

But when it comes to leadership, being assertive, self-assured and decisive are the characteristics we value. They’re also typically considered “masculine” traits. Men who demonstrate these behaviors are admired and respected. They’re viewed as strong leaders – the ones we want to have in charge.

When a woman displays these same qualities, she’s often called aggressive, abrasive and unlikable. Research shows that while people (male and female) may acknowledge that she’s smart, they’re less likely to want to work with her.

On the other hand, if a woman is warm, compassionate, and likable (fitting the “feminine” stereotype), she’s often deemed to be too soft or emotional to handle a tough leadership role.

This conundrum is known as the “double bind”, or in more colloquial language:

You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

Have you ever found yourself caught up in a dilemma like this? It can feel like there’s no workable path forward.

But here’s some encouraging news. According to a study done by the Stanford Graduate School of Business:

“In the business world, women who are aggressive, assertive, and confident but who can turn these traits on and off, depending on the social circumstances, get more promotions than either men or other women.”

So whichever end of the range you fall on (high warmth or high competence), you have the opportunity to leverage what you naturally do well while amplifying the characteristics others perceive to be lacking.

Here are five tips that can help you negotiate the double bind.

  1. Know your style. In order to communicate effectively, it’s important to understand your style. Do you tend to be direct? Consider consciously showing more warmth. Are you seen as too nice? Check for verbal and body language that may be undermining your authority.

  2. Read social cues. By increasing your own self-awareness, you’ll be better able to tune into other people’s styles. How do they need you to communicate (with stories, with data, for example) so you can connect effectively with them?

  3. Demonstrate flexibility. One style doesn’t fit all. Question any assumptions you may be making about yourself, and other people. Be open to different points of view and consider the possibility that you may not always be right.

  4. Seek allies. Like it or not, women are judged more critically than men on everything from their competence and emotional stability, to their appearance. Increase your credibility by enlisting a network of allies who advocate on your behalf. And be sure to reciprocate!

  5. Be authentic. Adaptability is important, but nothing trumps being yourself. When you align your actions with your values, you project authenticity, trustworthiness and confidence. There will always be a few critics, but you’ll be leading from a place of truth and power.

In the words of Madonna:

“I’m tough, ambitious and I know exactly what I want. If that makes me a bitch, okay.”

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