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Women face a unique conundrum in the workplace.  In our culture, a great leader is thought of as someone who is decisive, assertive, and independent. These qualities are most often associated with men. Women, on the other hand, are expected to be nice, nurturing and unselfish. So what happens when women want to be considered for leadership positions? If we exhibit the assertive qualities associated with the ideal leader, we find ourselves in a “double bind”. We may be considered competent and qualified for the position, but we are also viewed as less likeable. We are expected to have more feminine qualities. On the flip side, women in positions of authority who have a more traditional feminine style may be liked, but they are not respected. They are considered to be too emotional and too soft to be a strong decisive leader.

When Lisa V worked on a trading floor with male NASDAQ equity traders, she was faced with the double bind when she asserted herself and gave her honest opinion.

They were a very tough crowd. There were many traders and personalities on that floor that had incredibly high opinions of themselves. What I realized is that they liked me only when I was more deferential. And the few times that I dared to challenge them with a different opinion or different point of view on the way things were going, I literally got shut out of one head of the desk. He just completely shut me out. And I was never relied on with that particular trader again like I had prior to that. When there were things that he needed done for his desk, he’d go to somebody else and not me. So, it was clear. He just basically cut me off, out of his business line.

In this example, Lisa was demonstrating her leadership and expertise. However, it was not well received.

When the reality of the workplace is such that assertive behavior is not viewed favorably for women, how do we manage to promote ourselves effectively so that key stakeholders understand our value?

Overcoming the double bind has everything to do with political savvy.

A study done in 2011 at Stanford Graduate School of Business suggests that in the business world, women who are aggressive, assertive, and confident, but who can turn these traits on and off, depending on the social circumstances, get more promotions than either men or other women.,

How do you know when to turn these masculine traits on and off?

Just as the Stanford study suggests, you do this by observing and learning as much as you can about the people and modifying your behavior and style in a way that will resonate with them. Generic messages are not nearly as effective as those that are customized for your audience based on what you know about them; what they want and need.

Are you willing to share your experience with the Double Bind? If so, I would love to interview you for my upcoming book. Please email me if you’re interested!

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