Like many women, attorney Mary McKelvey has found herself ensnared in the trap of "the double bind," the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't Catch-22 of how women are supposed to behave to get ahead in the workplace.
As president-elect of the Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles (WLALA), vice president of the WLALA Foundation, and an esteemed partner in a law firm, McKelvey is a leader by any standard, but it hasn't always been easy.
"When men lead a team, and they are direct, it's usually OK, and people fall in line," she says. "But there are definitely times when I've been direct, and it was perceived as me being a 'bitch'."
What is the 'double bind'?
The double bind is broadly defined as a dilemma in which a person is challenged with two opposite and irreconcilable courses of action.
When applied to gender parity, the double bind describes the discrepancies in accepted male and female behavior entrenched in our society for centuries and how those discrepancies make it difficult for women to succeed.
In other words, when a woman behaves inside the societal expectations that have been ascribed to her, such as being soft-spoken, gentle, and focused on relationships, they may be "liked" at work. Still, they run the risk of not being taken seriously.
Yet when that same woman takes an assertive stance or assumes a "take charge" attitude to get things done, they can be perceived as "pushy," "angry," "abrasive," or, like McKelvey, "bitchy."
For many women, this incongruence makes advancement to senior roles nearly impossible. And for women who do make it into leadership positions, it translates into having to adopt traditionally masculine traits to be taken seriously. The constant checks and balances this requires can be exhausting.
How to handle it
McKelvey says that her own lack of confidence has a tendency to get in her way and that when she second-guesses her decisions and holds back from taking action, she regrets it every time. "Perhaps my biggest impediment is my own self-doubt," she says.
That's why, she adds, "It's important to keep going! I don't stop what I'm doing [when I receive backlash] because I've learned that your reaction is not really my business, and that helps."
But how does a woman become confident in the workplace when systemic gender bias erodes her self-esteem? Support is essential.
Page Haun, CMO of Cologix, underscores the importance of seeking out supporters from all levels of an organization. "I think as a female, it's important to be proactive in forging ties across the board — whether it's with males or females. You have to be proactive about it because those relationships don't always just naturally happen. I didn't realize the importance of that when I was starting out."
In the short term, support can boost self-confidence, giving women the motivation and the freedom to stand firm in their convictions while being authentic. And when women support other women, the positive impact multiplies. "We need to support each other in a way that's unselfish," says McKelvey. When we do, then "at the end of the day we really all win."
Support can take several forms in the workplace, including:
- Community. A study by Northwestern University and the University of Notre Dame shows that women who participate in female-dominated groups and have strong networks with other women are more likely to achieve senior-level leadership roles than those who do not. It also contends that more than 75% of female leaders maintained strong ties with two or three women they communicated with frequently. The researchers note that such ties provide "trustworthy, gender-relevant information about job cultures and social support, which are very important to women in male-dominated settings."
- Collaboration. McKelvey believes women have been culturally conditioned to compete with each other. While some competition is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, people who collaborate focus on building each other up, empowering each other to succeed.
"We're told there are only so many openings: 'there's only one slot, and we can only have one woman here,' that kind of thing." To get ahead, then, women have to stop buying in, she says. "If we buy into the rules of the game — the male fraternity game — then we don't win [because of] someone else's rules. When women come together, there is nothing we can not do."Indeed, collaboration is powerful. Jennifer Smith*, a vice president in the media services industry, adds that working together is key, not only for individuals and teams, but for the organization as a whole. She feels that leaders who foster collaboration have the greatest success. "The world is always going to operate better with collaboration. Leaders who are collaborative and gracious and grateful to their teams, and who hire people who actually bring things to the party that they don't ... those leaders have the greatest success because they are able to [step back] and say, 'how does this person or this group complement me, and most importantly, complement the organization.'"
- Mentorship. Having a strong role model or mentor in the workplace can help unravel the double bind because it helps build a woman's belief in her capabilities, promotes professional development, and provides opportunities for honest feedback and advice — all of which can lead to advancement. Mentoring can also foster a desire in mentees to help other women move forward in their careers, creating a cycle of women supporting women. Smith says it's essential for women to find mentors who have figured out how to navigate the double bind and emulate them. "I had two along the way who were really amazing because they kept their femininity and at the same time were powerful," she says. "It was so admirable. I think a lot of women think they have to take on masculine traits, and I was very fortunate to be able to work for two women who were classy and gentle but still firm and decisive."
In the end, it's up to us all as a society to untie the double bind. To do this, we must evolve. We have to change how we perceive what it means to be "male" or "female" and what a leader looks and acts like. We have to see through the stereotypes ingrained in our culture to let go of our unconscious bias. It's possible; hopefully, it won't take another 100 years to get there.
*Name has been changed by request to maintain confidentiality.