The common belief that leaders should be competent and assertive (typically traits associated with the male gender) often presents a challenge for women in leadership positions. The double bind challenge is that when in leadership roles, women must not only be competent and assertive, but they must also demonstrate that they are nurturing and selfless. Why? Because they are women.
On the one hand, if women are assertive, they are considered pushy: the bitch, and their like-ability factor is low. When they show their softer feminine qualities, they are labelled a bimbo and their competence is questioned.
Case in point: Carly Fiorina experienced this when she was CEO of Hewlett Packard. “In the chat rooms around Silicon Valley, from the time I arrived and until long after I left HP, I was routinely referred to as a “bimbo”, or a “bitch” – too soft or too hard, and presumptuous, besides.”
Dominance and assertiveness is accepted in men, less so in women, and so, the challenge for women leaders is that the doubts about their competence or about their perceived warmth lead to a resistance to their leadership authority.
How do we deal with this double bind? We, as women, need to embrace a leadership style that shows not only our competence and strength, but also our warmth and caring nature. We need to be aware of how we communicate and consciously modify our message to the target audience and/or culture of our organization.
What is the culture of your organization and what does the culture support in terms of leadership style?
How do you effectively promote yourself in your organization?
Sometimes it is appropriate to step up and take credit. In other instances, the best way to increase your credibility is to spread the word through other key people in your organization. Build strategic networks and feed information to your network contacts. Win over the skeptics and do the strategic behind the scenes work to promote your credibility.