When we receive contradictory messages about the choices available to us but either option results in negative consequences, we’re placed in a double bind. Women are put in a double bind at work every day when faced with the impossible decision of being perceived as likable or competent.
When women defy gender expectations and act assertively at work, they are perceived as competent but their likeability amongst co-workers decreases. On the converse, women are considered likable when they behave compassionately and gently at work but their co-workers then perceive them to be incompetent. Neither of these biases is impacted by the results of the work that women do. This double bind holds true even when women are successful at their assigned duties.
There are real consequences to this. It places women in a very narrow box of how they can behave at work. Additionally, it impacts how often women are hired and promoted. When women are perceived as incompetent, they are less likely to be hired. They are also less likely to be hired when perceived as unlikable. In fact, in a study conducted by Madeline Heilman, Ph.D., NYU psychology professor, volunteers were randomly divided into groups and given the same resumes to review. In one group, the resume was attributed to a man, and in the other group, it was attributed to a woman. When presented as men, the candidates were viewed as competent and likable. However, women with the exact same resume were perceived as competent but their likability dropped. Phillips said, “When the person was presented as a high-powered person, who was very ambitious, we found that the person was seen as much more unlikable when it was a woman than when it was a man.”
This is a societal issue that should be fixed, but the reality is that it won’t shift immediately. While organizations and teams should learn to stop discrediting different styles of leadership–especially those that women bring to the table–there are ways women can navigate the double bind in the workplace.
It can be exhausting to be caught in this cycle of navigating how the bias of others impacts how you are received. Allies in the workplace should be aware of the double bind women face and actively work to become conscious of their own biases. Allies should also commit to calling in others on the team when they see women being placed in an unfair predicament. True gender equality can only be accomplished when women are allowed to lead in ways that are authentic to them free of facing consequences derived from gender biases and stereotypes.
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