How double bind bias impacts women leaders

by Aug 29, 2019

The effect of the double bind bias on women in leadership

We already know that men and women are held up to different expectations, but the double bind bias makes it even harder for women than it seems.

It’s all in the numbers. According to research from Eurostat, 51% of the EU population are women compared to 49% men. 54% of university education students are women. Yet only 17.6% of CEOs in the EU are women and a mere 11% or THREE heads of government are female.

In the US the situation is no different. 70% of women aged 16-64 are in the workplace. This is a number which has increased by 17% since 1971.The majority of mothers now work and they almost equal the number of women who do not have children in the labour force. Yet in terms of leadership, women’s board representation remains low at 28%. For senior leadership roles, although the number is higher than Europe, it was still only 22% in 2018. Research from Catalyst indicates that women in the Fortune 500 now make up 14.6% of executive officers, only 8.1 percent of the highest paid and under five percent of CEOs.


double bind bias

So why is there such a wide gap?

Many heads have tried to come up with the reasons for lack of women in leadership roles in our organisations. Common threads are:

  • Sexism
  • Harassment
  • Discrimination
  • Lack of role models
  • Unconscious bias
  • General cultural gender stereotyping

Double bind bias

However, the biggest hurdle is around double bind bias and our perceptions of women. In particular, about how we perceive women when they move from behaving in accordance with the expectations we assign them. double bind occurs when an individual faces two or more contradictory demands. As a result of a successful response to one demand, there is a failed response to the other. A gender specific double bind occurs due to social expectations around different roles. An example of this is when traits positively associated with leadership, conflict with traits stereo-typically associated with femininity.

Descriptive bias limits our perceptions of leaders to male characteristics, so that when women push for entry to those roles they are penalised. Prescriptive bias comes into being when women don’t exhibit behaviour or qualities traditionally assigned to their gender, thus breaking out of preconceived stereotypes. Women are supposed to be collaborative, deferential, emotional, sensitive and caring. If they are not, it assumed that there is something wrong with them.

If a woman is decisive or assertive, she is perceived to be aggressive or a “ball breaker.” The same behaviour rewarded in men as demonstrable leadership skills, is penalised in women. This also impacts their likeability. When women break out of the typically stereotyped female mould, they are seen to be less feminine and therefore less likeable. Thus women are trapped around the idea of polarised and out-dated perceptions of how women are supposed to behave. 


On the other hand, men are supposed to be assertive, decisive, rational, competent and objective. We assume men will generally make better leaders than women because our unconscious expectations align with men exhibiting these pre-approved masculine traits with leadership positions.

Women in leadership positions face specific dilemmas as a result of the gender double bind. They are polarized perceptions; expected to have higher standards of competency than their male counterparts, and a conflict over being viewed as competent or well-liked.

Higher levels of competence

Women are also subject to higher standards of competence for leadership roles than their male counterparts. Research suggests that they have to be better and achieve greater results for the same level of recognition. However when they do, “double bind bias” kicks in and they are penalised yet again.

Role congruity theory

A research experiment from ABC News in 2013 found that when actors posing as a male and a female candidate responded to interview questions from exactly the same script, the woman was judged more harshly than the man. Her responses were perceived to be too “aggressive” and “arrogant” to be a manager. In the assessment, women evaluators were just as guilty of bias as the men.

Tackle unconscious biases in your workplace with out Unconscious Bias Training Workshops.

Finding solutions

The challenge of tackling bias and gender stereotypes in our workplaces has been around for many years, yet the needle barely moves. It is futile to deny our own bias and even more unhelpful to try and “eliminate” or “eradicate” them from our workplaces. The best we can do is own them and try to manage them.

The best way to go about this is to:

1. Develop self- awareness and take unconscious training

It is important to create a culture of awareness. Our greatest bias (our blind spot) is to minimise or ignore our own biases and to be mindful of bias in others (“’m not biased – it’s my colleagues who have a problem”). Make sure you engage in any unconscious bias training. Develop an understanding of any sexist behaviours that occur in your organisation, and even your wider culture. Reflect on what you might do, or don’t do, to enable this behaviour. Do you stay silent when someone cracks a sexist joke? Do you look the other way or smile indulgently when a colleague comments on a woman’s appearance or leers after her?

2. Test yourself for unconscious bias

One of the most far reaching tests is the Harvard Implicit Bias test or the Confirmation Bias test. This is a person’s tendency to favour information that confirms their assumptions, preconceptions or hypotheses, whether these are actually and independently true or not.

3. Use interrupters

Set up systems where you and your peers agree to assess assumptions and the language you use. This is especially important for when giving feedback or making hiring or promotion decisions. Focus on the facts and skills and competences. What makes you think that a woman lacks confidence or will become emotional under pressure? Ask the right questions and try to pinpoint false assumptions based on bias.

Very often in a performance appraisal a manager is expected to stick to the facts when giving negative feedback but not when the review is positive. Women need to hear facts on their achievements from their bosses.

4. Redefine your idea of leadership

What we need to evaluate is our expectations and definitions of what makes a leader. Research from Pew suggests that expectations around male and female qualities and behaviours are changing and becoming less binary. We can change, we just need to keep working on it.

Contact 3Plus today to find out more about our Leadership Coaching Services.

Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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