A summary of The Double Bind Dilemma

What does the Double Bind mean for women in the workplace?

This concept has been used for decades in social psychology, but in application to women leaders in the workplace, the definition is nuanced. The Double Bind in this context is essentially the stigma women face when they pursue leadership: they become stuck between a rock and a hard place, locked into a bind. This is because traits such as being assertive, confident and decisive are often associated with men, whilst we typically expect women to be emotional, nurturing and communicative.  

The ‘masculine’ characteristics are also perceived as beneficial for leadership, making the ‘feminine’ traits better suited for caregiving, supportive roles. These expectations often mean that when women are caring and display ‘feminine’ behaviours at work, they are well-liked but not seen as leaders. Yet if they take charge and lead by asserting what are considered masculine qualities, they may gain recognition as a leader, but typically be disliked. 

The Heidi and Howard experiment is a classic example of the Double Bind. Heidi Roizen is a venture capitalist hailing from Silicon Valley in the USA. At Columbia Business School, Professor Frank Flynn gave half his class Heidi’s case study, documenting her career success. He gave the other half the same case study – swapping only the name ‘Heidi’ for ‘Howard’. Both classes were mixed gender and recognised Heidi’s and Howard’s equal competence. However, they all preferred Howard as he seemed smart, genuine and likeable, whereas Heidi seemed aggressive, self-promoting and power-hungry.   

This study indicates that when women pursue career success through leadership, they are damned for doing so and doomed (by way of lower wages and less influence within an organisation) if they don’t. It’s a form of gender bias that needs to be challenged in order to see real gender equity in workplaces. 

Related Concepts 

Second Generational Bias 

Related Research 

The research piece published through MIT Sloan School of Management titled ‘“Potential” and the Gender Promotion Gap‘ will shine greater context on the Double Bind. It’s been summarised by ECC here. 

Related Resources

Click here to learn more about Women’s Development Programmes: 6 Lessons from Designing Women’s Development Programmes

Click here to learn more about Inclusive Leadership: Intro to Developing Inclusive Leaders 

Related Read

Understand more about the double-bind by Geraldine Gallacher, Author of ‘Coaching Women: Fixing the System not the Person’