May 29, 2024

Breaking the Double Bind: Empowering Women Leaders in the Workplace

Breaking the Double Bind: Empowering Women Leaders in the Workplace

Let’s be honest, it’s hard to achieve balance when it comes to female assertiveness.


When you speak up or vie for a promotion, you’re looked upon as aggressive.

When you show compassion or demonstrate emotion, you’re risking a loss of respect.

If you’re too likable, you’re seen as personable but not powerful.

If you’re too authoritative, you’re seen as cold and lacking warmth.


This is the double bind that women in the workforce face: you’re either too soft, too tough, but rarely just right.


The term double bind, first coined in 1956 by a British anthropologist, refers to a situation in which any choice you make penalizes you in some way. 

Sally, an IT senior director and client of mine, routinely received excellent feedback from her direct reports for her caring nature and collaborative approach. But her new boss saw her relational skills as a weakness, discounting her influence and insisting she become more formal in her approach. Sally’s efforts to be more of the leader he wanted her to be–distant and authoritative–never met his standards and eventually she was reorganized out of the company.

Sally was caught in the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t scenario. No matter what she did, to be herself or what others wanted her to be, she was criticized for it.


In 2022 TreSemme, the beauty company, together with The Representation Project, a global nonprofit promoting gender justice, polled 2000 women ages 19-65 to explore the double bind experience and analyze the conflicting messages women face today.*

The survey found that 68% of American women have experienced double binds most commonly in their careers but also at school, at home, and on social media. 

What struck me was the effect that double binds have had on women. According to the report, women questioned themselves more, became quieter and less vocal, felt exhausted (80%) and like they would never be enough (64%).

The pressure to be all things to all people is a common one for women. In my survey of over 1,150 professionals, most of them women, I asked “How often do you feel like you need to be all things to all people?” Their answer: 73% of the time. 


As a Behavioral Consultant and Trainer in DISC Personality Profiles, I can tell you that it is not natural to be what the double bind pressures you to be: assertive and collaborative, analytical and influential, or decisive and diplomatic all at the same time. In fact, if you are, you’re probably wearing a personality mask. The truth is, all people come wired with a specific set of strengths aligned either with kindness or competence, but not both. 


1. Know your leadership style. Are you naturally wired to lead with competence or kindness? The personality types with a task priority lead with competence and those with a relational priority lead with kindness. This one insight can give you the confidence needed to be who you are designed to be and contribute your innate strengths. 

2. Call out the elephant in the room. In a Wall Street Journal article, Sheryl Sandberg tells the story of a freelance film director who started her salary negotiation by acknowledging the bias. “I just want to say up front that I’m going to negotiate, and the research shows that you’re going to like me less when I do.” Advocating for one’s worth and value is seen as a competence trait that makes women seem too aggressive and less likable, so calling out the double bind before it could be used against her, this savvy director leveled the playing ground and challenged her interviewers to see in a more positive light.

3. Supplement your style. Unconscious rapport is initially dependent on the degree to which you are like another person. People like similarities, so supplement your style to give everyone something to like and appreciate.

If you lead with a naturally task-based type (Improver or Doer), supplement your style with warmth cues. For example, ask more questions, tell more stories, tilt your head when others speak and smile.

If you lead with a naturally people-based type (Connecter or Stabilizer), supplement your style with competence cues. Take up space, use power moves, and reference statistics and data. Make sure to ditch over-apologizing and watch for diminishing language like “just” and “actually”. 

Affirm your unique style and strengths as a female leader. Boldly call out judgment and bias, and celebrate the invaluable perspectives you bring to the table. Together, let's champion diversity in leadership, recognizing and uplifting the distinct qualities women contribute. Embrace and advocate for the richness of your individuality.