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Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't, the Double-bind for Women Leaders

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Did you know that almost 60% of corporate CEOs in the US are over six foot tall, yet less than 15% of American men are over six foot. What's going on? Is height at the forefront of executive search criteria lists? This is clearly ridiculous, and yet the numbers do not lie.

Think about it. Close your eyes and imagine a leader. What does that leader look like, dress like, sound like? Did you imagine a petite woman with a delicate slightly high pitched voice in a summer floral dress? Did imagine an overweight, balding man sporting a cardigan, flaunting a stammer? Did you imagine a tall man, good head of greying hair, deep powerful voice, wearing a dark suit and tie?

I'm exaggerating, I know, but it highlights the point. Our unconscious biases have fooled us into believing that leaders look and sound like a certain type of person, and that type of person has a gender. He is tall, slim, good-looking, charismatic with a deep voice.

The impact of this gender bias in the workplace and on the presence of women in leadership positions is immense. So immense, infact, that we are only starting to scratch the surface on understanding where it comes from and how it works. But we can see the results - a clear lack of women in leadership positions. Plus just think of all those women freezones - think trading floors, oil rigs - and the pink silos - human resouces, dental hygiene, care professions. The Invention of Difference: The story of gender bias at work, a new book by Prof Binna Kandola, OBE and Jo Kandola is must read for all those interested.

Take a moment and think of some stereotypical ways of positively describing women. If you're stuck here are some common ones:

Women are naturally: Warm; Nurturing; Caring; Kind; Loving: Forgiving.

What about the men? How about: Powerful; Strong; Commanding; Confident; Dominant; Bold.

Sound familiar? Now think of how you would describe a leader. Bets on that the male descriptors hit the nail on its head.

It's not only that we associate men more easily with leadership traits, it's worse, much worse than that. We are not comfortable associating women with those same traits. We like women who are warm, nurturing, caring, kind, loving and forgiving. We don't really like women who are powerful, strong, commanding, confident, dominant and bold. It's a double-bind dilemma - Damned if you do, Damned if you don't (also the subject of a Catalyst Report). Women can't be leaders if they don't demonstrate leadership traits, but if they do they are disliked for it!

In 1992, long before Sheryl Sandberg's Lean-in, Barbara Streisand eloquently captured the double-bind dilemma:

"A man is commanding - a woman is demanding.
A man is forceful - a woman is pushy.
A man is uncompromising - a woman is a ballbreaker.
A man is a perfectionist - a woman's a pain in the ass.
He's assertive - she's aggressive.
He strategises - she manipulates.
He shows leadership - she's controlling.
He's committed - she's obsessed.
He's persevering - she's relentless.
He sticks to his guns - she's stubborn.
If a man wants to get it right, he's looked up to and respected.
If a woman wants to get it right, she's difficult and impossible."

But what about you?

What's your knee jerk reaction to assertive women - either junior or executive? Have you ever caught yourself thinking women are naturally better at caring for people? Have you fallen into the trap of using a different measuring sticks for men and women? Have you made snap judgements based on stereotypes? Have you made assumptions about someone based on his gender?

The truth is that all of us, including yours truly, have at somepoint in time. It's time to stop. It's time to set women free of the double-bind.

And if you don't believe a word of the above just take a look at the numbers:
- 4 of FTSE 100 CEOs are women.
- 15.3% of FTSE 100 Executive Committee Members are women.
- 4.5% of Fortune 500 CEOs.
- 14.3% of Fortune 500 Executive Officers are women.