untying 1 -APPROVEDWhen asked what life’s like at the top, many women-executives point out the double-bind: the challenge of being perceived as:

  1. Assertive, but not bold, and
  2. Nice, but not weak.

“As a man gets more successful, he is better liked by men and women, and as a woman gets more successful, she is less liked by men and women,” says Sheryl Sandburg, COO of Facebook.1 More evidence from a Stanford study confirms what we know from our own experience: that leadership is associated with traditionally masculine qualities, but not traditionally feminine qualities.2

Since men worked in the business world before women entered it in large numbers, most advice for women focuses on modeling how male counterparts succeed: Women are counseled on how to be assertive and exude confidence. At the same time, women are often cautioned not to be “too aggressive” to avoid both negative feedback and the risk of not being liked.

Forward-thinking companies and business schools are taking actions to squash subtle gender bias. But to untie the double-bind, women also must confront their own internalized gender bias.

Here are three tips for moving beyond the double-bind:

  1. Focus on what motivates you to lead. Pursuing goals that align with personal values and benefit the organization may compel you to take action despite personal fears and insecurities. This sense of purpose can lead to other activities, such as networking, that help you become an effective leader.3
  2. Monitor yourself according to the situation at hand. Women who are assertive and confident, but know when to turn these traits on and off get more promotions than either men or other women.2
  3. Advocate for other women or for yourself and your team at the same time. Speaking out for others aligns with the traditional view of women as helpful, so you avoid the usual social backlash. In can be as simple as saying “We” instead of “I.”

Also look for and engage your own advocates. When others advocate for you, it confers external status that legitimizes your high rank.4



1. ‘Lean In’: Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg Explains What’s Holding Women Back. Available at: http://www.npr.org/2013/03/11/173740524/lean-in-facebooks-sheryl-sandberg-explains-whats-holding-women-back. Accessed September 27, 2013.

2. Stanford Finds the Secret Switch for Women’s Success! Available at:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/womensmedia/2012/09/11/stanford-finds-the-secret-switch-for-womens-success/. Accessed September 27, 2013.

3. Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers. Hbr.org. Available at: http://hbr.org/2013/09/women-rising-the-unseen-barriers/ar/1. Accessed on September 4, 2013.

4. Female Leaders, 3 Strategies for Success in the Workplace. Available at http://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeswomanfiles/2013/08/08/female-leaders-3-strategies-for-success-in-the-workplace/. Accessed September 27, 2013.

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