Do Women Lead Differently? Should They Lead Differently?

Most of us have seen it firsthand: The “double bind” that professional women face at work. They are derided for being forceful or assertive, but when they show compassion or lend support, they may be seen as soft or unfit to lead. Women are set up to face a no-win situation.

In our upcoming Women in Leadership WebCast on April 20 at 1:00PM (EDT), I will sit down with Professor Allison Elias from Cornell’s ILR School to learn about her research in this area and to explore potential solutions to this frustrating dilemma. I interviewed Allison this week to learn more about her research into the behavior, in women and men, around the “double bind”.

Chris: Tell me a bit about the “double bind”. How does it affect women who are aspiring or in leadership positions? Where did it come from?

Allison: The term “double bind” emerged from academic research in the 1950s; now the term has morphed into a way to describe a “no-win situation”. Scholars of women in leadership utilize this term to refer to the dilemma that emerging and current women leaders face at work. Research has shown that often women are penalized for behavior that seems assertive or forceful but also they are dismissed as weak or even incompetent if they display a warm and supportive leadership style. This body of research about the double bind reinforces two important points: tackling implicit bias and engaging men as allies, both of which will be explained further during the WebCast.

Chris: When we spoke the other day, you mentioned the idea of “creating your own definition of success?” If you’re doubly bound, how do you do that?

Allison: Research surrounding the double bind suggests that women are encountering unexpected obstacles—some interpersonal and some structural—in their quest for workplace equality. In fact, some scholars have referred to the movement of women into the workforce as a “stalled revolution”. In other words, the corporate policies, cultural norms, and state regulations that push for equality as sameness (women wanting the same treatment and the same opportunities as men) have severe limitations when moving towards more inclusive workplaces. Although we will explore these ideas in greater depth during the WebCast, women should honor themselves by pursuing a life path that fulfills their own values. And in turn, employers should move towards restructuring work and workplaces to accomodate a wider array of personal values.

Chris: Can social networks help advance the cause or play a role here?

Allison: Women should use interpersonal relationships to learn more about themselves when determining their ideal life paths. Having candid conversations with close friends or partners allows us to gain greater insight into our own talents and limitations. Asking for feedback can elucidate potential incongruities between our own self-perception and how others view us. Having information about our own strengths and weaknesses can help us to craft a personal and professional path that aligns with the value others see in us.

Chris: We have lots to discuss on April 20. See you then, Allison.

Allison:  I look forward to it.

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Allison Elias
Assistant Professor, Cornell ILR School.
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