Men: 44, Women: 0 | Hidden Brain A century after women won the vote in the U.S., we still see very few of them in leadership roles. Researchers say women are trapped in a catch-22 known as "the double bind."

Too Sweet, Or Too Shrill? The Double Bind For Women

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I recently looked up the number of women in Congress. Fewer than 1 in 5 legislators are women. At Fortune 500 companies, fewer than 1 in 20 CEOs are women. And look at all the presidents of the United States through Barack Obama. Now, I know there was a long time when women couldn't be president. But if men and women had an equal shot at the White House, the odds of having 44 presidents in a row all be men - about 1 in 18 trillion.

What explains the dearth of women in top leadership positions? Is it bias, a lack of role models, the old boys club? Sure, but it goes deeper than that. Women are trapped in a catch-22 paradox so deeply embedded in our culture, that there are few means of escape.

CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN: 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 puppet, the shrew and the double bind facing women who want to lead, this week on HIDDEN BRAIN.

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. A few years ago, one of our listeners decided to switch careers.

DEBRA MEHTA: So my name is Debra Mehta (ph), and I am a second-year marketing student in an MBA program.

VEDANTAM: Debra had been a successful teacher, but the business world appealed to her. She thought she would be a good fit. So did the program to which she applied. She was awarded a full scholarship. Soon she was sharing the good news with an old friend.

MEHTA: We met for coffee one day and she is very nice. I'm still really good friends with her. But she said to me, I really can't see you in business. I think you're, you know, too sweet for the business world.

VEDANTAM: It was the beginning of a series of comments that undermined her belief that she could be a leader or a manager. Later that year, Debra's voice was the problem. Specifically, her habit of ending sentences on a higher pitch.

MEHTA: A professor during a class mentioned that I do that, that I raise my, you know, pitch at the end of a sentence.

VEDANTAM: The implication was that Debra sounded like a lightweight, not manager material. Debra says she wasn't prepared for the offhand remarks.

MEHTA: I mean, it really was leading me to lose confidence. The criticism of my voice and then, you know, everyone - not everyone - but several people telling me I - you know, I'm too sweet for business. I think it really affected me.

VEDANTAM: This is one side of the catch-22. Women like Debra are seen as not tough enough to be leaders. Another listener, Tuli Winston (ph), made a different set of choices. As a manager at a construction company, a female leader in a man's world, she decided to be strategic. From the way she dresses...

TULI WINSTON: I've definitely chosen to go a more masculine path, wearing Oxford shoes and button-downs, straight pulled back hair and pants.

VEDANTAM: ...To the way she greets clients.

WINSTON: You just, you know, just go in there and grab that hand and squeeze it because you have muscles too. I think that tends to help them go, oh, wow, this is not just a lady (laughter).

VEDANTAM: Tuli doesn't want to appear soft or overly feminine because she knows that would be seen as weakness. But appearing tough turns out to create its own set of problems.

WINSTON: It's definitely a double-edged sword because if I'm outspoken, all of a sudden the men in the office will joke about, oh, whoa, whoa, watch out for Tuli. Watch out, she's dangerous, that one.

VEDANTAM: Dangerous. Not driven, not strong - dangerous. We tell you their stories because together, Tuli and Debra's experiences reveal a powerful phenomenon that plays out when women strive to become leaders. The problem doesn't end with getting to the corner office. Women confront the same issues when it comes to exercising power. It's a double bind. Social psychologist Alice Eagly says the double bind comes about because of a series of unconscious interlocking stereotypes we have about men, women and the nature of leadership.

ALICE EAGLY: The female gender role, you know, is based on the stereotype that women are nice and kind and compassionate. But it's also expected, so people expect women to be kind of nice and friendly and smile.

VEDANTAM: Now, says Alice, consider our cultural stereotype about leaders.

EAGLY: In a leadership role, one is expected to take charge and sometimes, at least, to demonstrate toughness, make tough decisions, be very assertive in bringing an organization forward, sometimes fire people for cause, et cetera.

VEDANTAM: So what's a woman to do, be nice and kind and friendly, as our gender stereotypes about women require? Or be tough and decisive, as our stereotypes about leadership demand? To be one is to be seen as nice, but weak. To be the other is to be seen as competent, but unlikable.

The double bind exists for women like Tuli and Debra in the business world. But it also exists in public life, even for women with enormous power and experience. We talked to two women elected to high office. One is a Democrat, the other is a Republican. Their stories have many similarities. By the way, you may notice we refer to our guests by their first names. There are gender biases in the way the media use names. Journalists regularly refer to women by their first names and men by their last names. On this podcast, in the interest of being conversational, we use first names for all guests.

When Carol Moseley Braun was elected to the U.S. Senate, she achieved a powerful first. She was the first female African-American senator. In fact, she was the first African-American senator, period. Carol says growing up, her parents shielded her from finding out how bias might limit her choices.

MOSELEY BRAUN: My parents had never given me a notion that I was limited any way by my race or my gender. And that, you know, I could just do whatever it was that I thought I wanted to do and could do.

VEDANTAM: But when she got into politics, Carol realized that race and gender did matter. Of the two, she thought that racism would be the big barrier.

MOSELEY BRAUN: And I have to tell you that I think in some regards, the gender biases are more profound and more central to our culture than even the racial ones. And that for me was the surprise. I was expecting some pushback based on race and/or gender. What I wasn't expecting was that the gender pushback would be as pronounced as it was, even more so than the racial ones.

VEDANTAM: But shortly after Carol won her race, she says she confronted a second trap - the other side of the double bind. One time she made an impassioned plea on the floor of the Senate, but she felt her colleagues were just tuning her out.


MOSELEY BRAUN: ...Children in this country and getting rid of that safety net is what this so-called welfare reform is all about.

VEDANTAM: All they could hear was a shrill black woman.


MOSELEY BRAUN: ...Just because it hasn't worked. And I submit to you, Mr. President, that it...

I came home that night. I was so upset and demeaned - to use the word - that I thought, OK, that's it. I can't take this anymore. I'm going to quit.

VEDANTAM: She didn't quit. But Carol still vividly recalls how unfair it felt. And it wasn't just over how she was being treated. 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 make them walk around the square. (Laughter) That's - that was a shrew's punishment, the idea being that you're not supposed to have opinions about things outside of the home. And so that's a real danger for any woman in public life.

So every stranger gets to comment on how they - what they think about you and what they think about what you just said. And if you said too much, that becomes a danger. If you said too little, that's a danger also. 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: After serving one term in the Senate, Carol lost reelection in 1998.

CONNIE MORELLA: There is this sense that a woman has to be gracious and civil and smart and smile.

VEDANTAM: This is Connie Morella. Connie served for 16 years as a Republican congresswoman from Maryland.

MORELLA: But she's got to be strong also, and indicate that she's going to persevere.

VEDANTAM: Like Democrat Carol Moseley Braun, Connie says at times she struggled to be heard.

MOSELEY BRAUN: In a committee room when I wasn't chair of the committee, I would respond to a question or a comment on an issue. And they would say, well, thank you Connie, that's great. 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 (laughter).

VEDANTAM: Connie Morella, Carol Moseley Braun, Tuli Winston, Debra Mehta - all these women feel they've experienced bias. But here's the thing. How do we know scientifically that they're right? Carol Moseley Braun's Senate colleagues may have felt that perception of her was accurate. The newspaper cartoonist may have felt she really was easily manipulated. In fact, Carol herself in her interview with us listed numerous missteps she'd made as a campaigner and as a senator.

How can we tell with scientific certainty whether Carol was the victim of bias? When we look at a woman leader who appears incompetent or shrill, how do we know if we are seeing reality or just seeing the world through the lens of our own unconscious biases? This is where laboratory experiments are essential. They allow us to see precisely what's happening.

MADELINE HEILMAN: We keep everything identical. We expose people to the various what we call experimental conditions. And at the end of the day, if we find a difference we can say that it has to be due to that thing that we were studying. And that's the nature of a controlled experiment.

VEDANTAM: Stay with us.

When we judge a person's character, we usually think our opinions are based on fact. What we forget is that the world that enters our brain has been filtered. Figuring out what those filters are and how they distort our vision has long intrigued Madeline Heilman. She's a psychology professor at New York University who focuses on gender stereotypes and bias, particularly when it comes to leadership.

HEILMAN: What we have found consistently is that when we present women and men with exactly the same credentials, qualifications and backgrounds for a job that is traditionally male - held by men in our culture, thought to require male attributes - we consistently find that the woman is seen as more incompetent than the man.

VEDANTAM: The problem doesn't end there.

HEILMAN: Sometimes women really do show their competence and it's unavoidable and we can't we can't deny it. And what happens then? Well, 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 and they are penalized. They're disliked, but they're also seen as really - almost 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. These are words that are attributed to these women who are successful where they are not supposed to be, and I should put that in quotes. We have terms for these people, you know, ice queen and dragon lady and iron maiden and so on and so forth.

VEDANTAM: I want to emphasize these aren't Madeline's opinions. They are the findings of her experiments. In one study, Madeline asked volunteers to evaluate a high-powered manager joining a company. Sometimes volunteers are told a manager is a man. Other times they're told it's a woman.

HEILMAN: When the person was presented as a very-high power person who was very ambitious, we found that the person was seen as much more unlikable when it was a woman than when it was a man.

VEDANTAM: To be clear, the high-powered male and female manager are described in identical terms down to the letter. The only thing different is that one is said to be a man and the other is said to be a woman. Madeline has also looked at what happens when someone joins a company, but is not set to be in a position of power.

HEILMAN: If we didn't give information about how successful the person was, just had them applying for a job, we find that they're very - the women are as likeable as the man but they're seen as less competent. And that is the rock and the hard place, the double bind, that if it's not clear that you're successful and you have the same information about a woman and a man, the woman is seen as less competent. If you have very clear indication that there is success, then the woman is rated as unlikable. They see her as competent, but unlikable.

VEDANTAM: Madeline says the double bind arises because our minds are trying to align our stereotypes about men and women with our stereotypes about leadership.

HEILMAN: We have conceptions of these jobs and these positions and what is required to do them well. And there's a lack of fit between how we see women and what these positions require.

VEDANTAM: The biases Madeline describes aren't just held by men. They're held by both sexes, which explains why many female leaders encounter derision and suspicion from both men and women.

HEILMAN: I think that this comes from the social roles that people have played over time. Women stayed home and they took care. Men went out and they took, you know, they took charge of things. That is the kind of origin I think of the stereotypes that we hold.

We have very strong feelings about how men and women are. And that leads to the idea that women are less competent than men in a lot of these fields that we're talking about. And we have real strong ideas about how they should be. And that leads to this dislike when they go over the line, when they tread where they're not supposed to be.

VEDANTAM: There are other aspects to the double bind. Female leaders can get in trouble for displaying emotion, but also for not displaying emotion. Lisa Feldman Barrett is a psychology professor at Northeastern University and author of the forthcoming book "How Emotions Are Made."

LISA FELDMAN BARRETT: There's an implication that if a woman expresses emotion that she's either unsuitable for leadership or unstable in some way. Or if she doesn't express enough emotion, she's also seen rather than being seen as rational and kind of level-headed, she's seen as, you know, not empathic, not warm and generally not trustworthy.

VEDANTAM: In one experiment, Lisa showed volunteers pictures of faces and asked her why the subject was expressing an emotion. She found that the volunteers thought men's emotions were shaped by what was going on around them, but that women's emotions were shaped by their nature.

FELDMAN BARRETT: Both men and women when they were looking at female faces expressing emotion believed that this was caused by a woman's emotional nature. She's just a neurotic person. She's just unstable. She's just untrustworthy. As opposed to when they were looking at male faces expressing emotion, they were more likely to say, oh, he's just having a bad day. Something bad happened to him.

VEDANTAM: Lots of people have suggested ways out of the double bind. Some say women should ignore criticisms about incompetence and plunge full steam ahead. If they then appear unlikable, they should also go out of their way to demonstrate kindness in order to keep people from seeing them as competent but cold. There is something disturbing about these ideas. They ask women, who are the victims here, to compensate for the biases of others. Many experts also think that as society changes, our stereotypes will change as well. If more women make it through the labyrinth and get to the top, fewer people will have trouble seeing women as leaders.

Many countries and organizations are coming to think of leadership as being collaborative, rather than dictatorial. The less we think of leaders as alpha males, the easier it's going to be for our unconscious minds to see women as leaders. If there's one common thread here, it's that ending the double bind can't be just on the women reaching for high office or the corner office. It has to be on all of us.

This week's episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Jenny Schmidt and edited by Tara Boyle. Our staff also includes Maggie Penmen and Renee Klahr. If you liked this episode, I'm going to ask that you tell two friends - one man and one woman - about the show.

Our unsung hero this week is Anya Grundmann. She's the person who oversees NPR's podcasts. She's always had our back and there's a reason her calendar is always maxed out. Anya is the very definition of that collaborative leader we were just talking about. She makes everyone around her better.

Today we're also honoring the work of another remarkable colleague, producer Chris Benderev, who's been with us at HIDDEN BRAIN for a few months. He's about to return to his role on NPR's Embedded podcast. Chris is great at everything he does, which would be a little obnoxious if he weren't also one of the nicest people we know. Thank you, Chris, for all the great work you've done on this show.

You can find more HIDDEN BRAIN on Facebook and Twitter and listen for my stories on your local public radio station. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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