Paradoxes For Female Leaders: How Organizations Can Unpack The Gender Double Bind

Paradoxes For Female Leaders: How Organizations Can Unpack The Gender Double Bind

Soniya Dabak, HR Head, GE Aviation, India, 0

With extensive knowledge in Human Resources Management for various renowned organizations Soniya has ingenious experience and skills in Aviation.

A group of undergraduate students is asked to evaluate a set of fictional employees on their competence and likability. Half of them are told that employee A is male and employee B is female and the other half are told the reverse. Additionally, in one condition, they are told that the employee has received a stellar evaluation and in another, there is no specific information on the employee's success. What do you think happens?

Conducted by Dr. Madeline Heilman, this study offers interesting and important insights into the conversation on gender diversity and inclusion at work. The study revealed that when information on performance was not specified, both the male and the female employee were rated as equally likable, but the female employee was rated as less competent. However, when participants were told that the employee performed well, both the male and female employee were rated as competent, but the female employee was rated as less likable.

Paradoxes in people management have been well-documented. While leaders across genders face the tensions of maintaining control and empowerment, distance, and closeness etc. research shows that it is significantly more challenging for women to balance competing expectations in terms of being perceived as both tough and nice. They face what is referred to as the `gender double bind' wherein they are likely to be perceived as either warm and less competent or cold and more competent and the effect is more pronounced for women in traditionally male dominated fields. The gender double bind arises because our minds are trying to reconcile the unconscious assumptions, we hold about gender with those that we hold about leadership.

Studies document four tensions women face due to the gender double bind being perceived as demanding, yet caring authoritative, yet participative advocating for themselves yet serving others and distant, yet approachable. Some techniques like using humor, emphasizing communal or interpersonal traits and demonstrating confidence have been shown to help women overcome this double bind. It is equally important to note that gender stereotypes are faced not only by women, but all by genders for instance, studies have also found that male employees who performed well in traditionally female dominated professions were perceived as ineffectual.

Beyond Individual-Level Approaches To Overcome Gender Stereotypes
Understanding and shaping impression formation: Organizations would do well to map out specific situations wherein impressions get formed and designing them to enable reflectionand designing
them to enable reflection and checking of unconscious assumptions. Typical situations where impression formation and perpetuation occur at work are job interviews and performance evaluation. Organizations can design the experience of such situations to ensure inclusive framing of strengths and development areas through structured, consistent evaluation formats and triangulating inputs from different sources. Organizations also need to apply an analytical approach to uncovering unconscious biases in thought patterns and nudging individuals to reexamine and reframe them. For example, analyzing the use of language in interview evaluation or performance appraisal can help us understand if certain words are used more often in association with a particular gender e.g. does ‘networking' come up as a development area more often for women than for men or vice versa? Such an insight can, in turn, help us analyze if we are unconsciously attributing some perceptions to a gender and can be converted into nudges that help us reflect on and redefine these patterns.

Soniya Dabak is HR Leader for GE Aviation, India and a research scholar in Organizational Psychology with extensive experience in HR.

Encouraging conversations on gender distinctions:
Quite often, conversations on gender diversity in organizations are rooted in the notion of 'gender sameness' or the belief that 'everyone is equal'. "Why do we need to talk about diversity, why not let a process take its course?" is a common refrain heard along the journey to inclusion. This notion, by deemphasizing differences, misses the point that all genders may not start on a level playing field and that there are valuable differences in the ways in which different genders process information, solve problems, make decisions, respond to stress etc. Barbara Annis discusses the idea of gender intelligence, which focuses on recognizing and embracing these differences to develop a more holistic view of inclusion. Awareness of such differences can help people managers have more informed and customized approaches to communicating with and developing team members of different genders for example, think about how a manager could prepare better for dealing with a conflict situation if they had an understanding of how different genders respond differently to stress? Developing gender intelligence is critical in ensuring that gender diversity is not reduced to rhetoric but addresses real themes.

Enabling role crafting:While the gender double bind arises from stereotypes about gender, it is also a result of our stereotypes about the leader role in itself. Attributes that are conventionally associated with the male stereotype also happen to be associated with the leader stereotype. A broader and more holistic framing of the leader role is therefore indispensable to alter this unconscious assumption. Contemporary leadership theories focusing on the need for leaders to embrace contradictions rather than assume the traditional leader like role, servant leadership and humility have made the conception of the leader role more flexible and inclusive. Moreover, if we let go of the notion that people have to fit into roles, but instead focus on designing roles around people's strengths, motivations and capabilities, we will create more opportunities for people of all genders to express themselves authentically.