The young lawyer worked long hours, did great work, served on firm committees and got along with clients and colleagues. At her performance review, the senior partner noted all of these strengths. But he identified one “area of improvement”: “You are lacking in humility,” he said. I suspect the “double bind” is at play. The double bind is the tightrope women must walk. If they work and behave in more feminine ways, they are not seen as leaders. If they act in masculine ways (or too masculine or too often), they are disliked.
The numbers and graphs in the report by Lean In and McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace 2015, support some beliefs, and challenge some myths, about why women remain underrepresented at the executive level of American business. What about gender bias? The report concludes that women are more likely than men to perceive gender bias. Of course they do! One of the recommendations of the study is training to “interrupt gender bias,” including to assure men can see and understand the challenges women encounter.
In many parts of the world, women’s voices are suppressed. In our western culture, in particular in the U.S. corporate world, women’s voices are not “suppressed.” But they are often not fully heard. Why not? Let me suggest four challenges, with the hope that awareness can help us better hear women’s voices right here in the USA. The feminine style of speech sounds less confident. Women assert themselves only when they really know. Women get “talked over.” And women who do speak up face the “double bind.”
New research confirms what we know. Being one of very few women in a “male-dominated” organization or field can be stressful. Researchers found high levels of the stress hormone cortisol (“linked with later negative health outcomes”) in women in this situation. Even in industries where women are well represented, men dominate upper levels of management. It is stressful to walk the tightrope of the “double bind” and work to be heard and seen as competent. So my guess is that this research is applicable to many many women in business.
Arin Reeves uses the terms “Mansplaining,” “Manterrupting” and “Bropropriating” to describe ways in which men interrupt women. These phenomena have received lots of attention lately—by Sandberg and Grant in the NYT, Joann Lipman in the WSJ – and by me. Can awareness help assure that women are heard and get credit for their ideas? Fixing this can support the engagement and retention of women – and that is good for business results.
Why do women not speak up (as much as men) in meetings? The real reason, say Sharyl Sandberg and Adam Grant in their NYT series, is the “double bind.” If women don’t speak up, hold the floor and speak with confidence, they are not heard or seen as leaders. If they do, they are seen as aggressive (called the “B-word”). They offer some suggestions. I add my own.