NPR logo

'Double Bind' Explains The Dearth Of Women In Top Leadership Positions

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/499409051/499409052" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Double Bind' Explains The Dearth Of Women In Top Leadership Positions

'Double Bind' Explains The Dearth Of Women In Top Leadership Positions

'Double Bind' Explains The Dearth Of Women In Top Leadership Positions

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/499409051/499409052" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Our culture has long expected that women will be kind, and leaders will be authoritative. So what's a female leader to do when she confronts these conflicting stereotypes? Gary Waters/Getty Images/Ikon Images hide caption

toggle caption
Gary Waters/Getty Images/Ikon Images

Our culture has long expected that women will be kind, and leaders will be authoritative. So what's a female leader to do when she confronts these conflicting stereotypes?

Gary Waters/Getty Images/Ikon Images

Women in power often have to choose between being seen as likeable but incompetent, or competent but cold. We explore what's known as "double bind" — assumptions about men, women and leadership.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Hillary Clinton rather famously spoke of cracks in the glass ceiling - that invisible barrier that stops women from rising to the highest rungs of power. Some psychologists see it differently - not a ceiling, but a labyrinth. And the problem does not stop once a woman is elected to public office or reaches the corner office. NPR's Shankar Vedantam explores a painful double bind that affects women who seek to lead.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: For 16 years, Connie Morella served as a Republican congresswoman from Maryland, but she says she struggled to be taken seriously.

CONNIE MORELLA: I would respond to a question or a comment on an issue. And they would say, well, thank you, Connie. And then, a little later, Representative Smith said the very same thing I did, and it was, oh, Congressman Smith, that was fabulous. Let the record show that you have accomplished that - whatever. And I think, gee, I just said that.

VEDANTAM: This is one side of the double bind. Women who aspire to leadership are often seen as inconsequential. In 1992, Carol Moseley-Braun became the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate. But shortly after she won her race, she confronted the other side of the double bind. She made an impassioned plea on the Senate floor one day and realized her colleagues were only hearing a shrill, angry woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CAROL MOSELEY-BRAUN: And getting rid of that safety net is what this so-called welfare reform is all about. We are rending that safety net apart.

VEDANTAM: Moseley-Braun says she nearly quit the Senate that day. It wasn't just about the unfair perception. She saw her experience in the long light of history.

MOSELEY-BRAUN: In the 15th century, women who talked back, they would put weights on their tongue. And so it is really that very, very fine line between being a shrew on the one hand and a puppet on the other that any woman in public life has to walk.

VEDANTAM: The experiences of Carol Moseley-Braun and Connie Morella reveal the twin faces of the double bind. Women in power often have to choose between being seen as likeable, but incompetent, or competent, but cold. Social psychologist Alice Eagly says the double bind arises from a series of interlocking stereotypes about gender...

ALICE EAGLY: People expect women to be kind of nice and friendly (laughter) and smile.

VEDANTAM: ...And about leadership.

EAGLY: One is expected to demonstrate toughness, make tough decisions, sometimes fire people for cause, et cetera.

VEDANTAM: But in real life, when we look at a woman leader who appears incompetent or shrill, how do we know if we are seeing the world as it actually is or through the lens of our own biases? Madeline Heilman, a psychology professor at New York University, uses controlled experiments to answer that question. In one study, for instance, she asked volunteers to evaluate a high-powered manager joining a company. Sometimes, volunteers are told the manager is a man. Other times, they're told it's a woman.

MADELINE HEILMAN: When we present women and men with exactly the same credentials, qualifications and backgrounds for a job that is traditionally male, we consistently find that the woman is seen as more incompetent than the man.

VEDANTAM: Because these biases are shaped by culture, they're held by both men and women.

HEILMAN: The research that I've done has shown that when women are truly successful in areas where they're not expected to be, there's a very negative reaction. There's disapproval, but they're also seen as really awful depictions of what kinds of people they are - words like bitter and quarrelsome and selfish and deceitful and devious and manipulative and cold. We have terms for these people - you know, ice queen and dragon lady and iron maiden and so on and so forth.

VEDANTAM: At the same time, many experts believe these biases might be breaking down. As society changes and we come to think of leadership as being collaborative rather than dictatorial, our views may also change. The less we think of leaders as alpha males, the easier it's going to be for women to make it through the labyrinth and for our unconscious minds to recognize them as competent leaders. If there's one common thread here, it's that ending the double bind can't be just on the women who are reaching for high office or the corner office. It has to be on all of us. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And Shankar, of course, is the host of the Hidden Brain podcast.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.