How to Get Out From Between A Frock And A Hard Place- Will A Woman With Ambition Ever Be Truly Accecpted?

Summary: Why women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t and how to get the damnation off this hamster wheel of misogyny.

There’s a widely held cultural belief that women are inherently kind and compassionate. However, when women aspire to leadership roles, they need to shrug off that stereotype and become tough and decisive.

Such competence is often seen as fundamentally unfeminine, leading such women to be labeled as overly aggressive.

Whatever you do, you’re doomed: “If you’re too friendly, you’re considered unprofessional; if you’re not friendly enough, you’re considered a bitch.”

This is the double bind facing women in all walks of life, and it’s nothing new. During the witch hunts of the 17th century, suspected witches faced the ultimate double bind – if she drowned, she was innocent; if she didn’t, she has deemed a witch and executed for her crime.

Fortunately, the modern-day versions of the double bind no longer end in execution, but they do inflict harm on women and their ability to perform.

Last year, the US women’s soccer team was accused (ironically enough) of unsportsmanlike behavior after “excessively celebrating many of the 13 goals against a 34th-ranked team”.

Former team member, Abby Wambach, defended the team’s behavior, pointing out that “for some players, this is [their] first World Cup goal, and they should be excited. Would you tell a men’s team not to score or celebrate?” she queried.

While the team could have, and probably should have, behaved with a little more consideration for their opponents, the fact remains that women are constantly observed through “patriarchal glasses” and judged accordingly. No matter what we do, we are almost always found wanting.

So, what are women to do and, more importantly, how can women secure leadership roles if they assert themselves, they are called “hysterical,” as Kamala Harris was, or “too aggressive or emotional”?

How The Double Bind Ties Us In Knots

In a study published in Psychological Science in 2008, researchers found that men who expressed anger in a professional setting were “given more status, power, and independence in their jobs.” A woman who showed anger, on the other hand, is more likely to be perceived as “not competent at dealing with workplace situations”[1], leading to her being given a lesser status.

This double bind isn’t only present in the professional sphere – it ties us in knots in our personal lives. A study of the representation of mothers in the media, published in 2003, explored the double bind affecting mothers in particular.

It pointed out that the” selfish/selfless double-bind messages tell mothers who forsake an identity outside the mother role that they are good, self-sacrificing mothers but implicitly condemned for being powerless women”[2].

The double bind features prominently in our personal relationships and plays a significant role in the dating scene. If, for instance, a woman accepts a man’s sexual approaches, “she’s labeled as a slut”; if she rejects him, she’s labeled “a cocktease, a killjoy, a gold-digger, a lesbian…” the list is virtually endless.

Similarly, concepts of women’s sexuality also place us in a double bind whereby we are seen as either pure and sexually innocent or “insatiable”[3].

The consequences of being faced with these persistent double binds are serious and far-reaching. They limit our professional capacity, with studies indicating that “women’s perceived competency drops by 35% and their perceived worth falls by $15,088 when they are judged as being ‘forceful’ or ‘assertive.’” They also induce “helplessness, fear, exasperation, and rage” and increase anxiety.

Bitch or bimbo; hysterical or frigid; unstable or unemotional; kind and friendly but weak, or tough and decisive but unlikeable – these gender stereotypes trip us up all the time, so how do we undo this double bind and give ourselves the freedom to be everything we have the potential to be?

Stay tuned for the next article in this series when we explore how to undo the double bind.

How to Get Out From Between a Frock and a Hard Place – Part 2

Summary: Why women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t and how to get the damnation off this hamster wheel of misogyny.

How to Undo the Double Bind

With Kamala Harris making history and breaking through a glass ceiling that was reinforced by the double bind, there is no better time to start “chipping away at the societal stereotypes about gender” that underscore those double standards.

The first step in unpicking the double bind is to recognize its existence. The second is to do whatever we can to stand up against it. This includes speaking up if you hear your colleagues “using words that reinforce negative gender stereotypes.”

You also need to challenge your thinking, starting with “reversing the gender of the person you’re evaluating to see if it makes a difference in your language and assessment.”

Some other approaches to tackling the double bind include:

#1 Let Your Body Do Some of the Talking

Carol Ginsey Goman recommends using body language to “display competence and power signals when the situation requires it, and then to be seen as more empathetic and inclusive when it is more effective to do so.”

Tilting the head, for example, can be interpreted as being “very empathetic and warm.” However, head tilts “are also subconsciously processed as submission signals.” Women can therefore use head titles to convey concern but, if they need to “project power and confidence,” must keep their heads “straight up in a more neutral (and authoritative) position.”

If you want to convey power, you could either steeple your hands or rotate them palms down – “both gestures indicate that you are sure of your position.”

#2 Let Go of Those Hidden Leadership Tendencies

According to a research article published in Cogent Business & Management journal in 2017[4], “effective leaders craft behaviors that respond to the dual demands of context and authenticity.”

To achieve this as women, we need to guard against self-debilitating behaviors such as hidden leadership tendencies. Do you, for example, give your ideas over to others to present? Many of us do, bowing down to the “powerful influence” or “organizational hierarchy and norms.”

You may feel you need to hide aspects of yourself because they don’t conform to the company vision but, in doing so, you could be exposing yourself to feelings of “discomfort, confusion, and dissonance toward the culture of the organization.”

To combat this, it’s important to stop fearing rejection and let go of your “habitual self-diminishing and context-amplifying thought processes.” Instead, assert yourself, let your voice be heard, and don’t worry too much about fall out. Remember, “you can be brave and afraid at the same time.”

We “need to continue speaking up and advocating with self-assuredness and authority for the world to change.”

#3 Highlight Inconsistencies in Behaviour

We often dodge around the gender double bind, hoping to ignore its elephantine presence in the room but “asking open questions and pointing out inconsistencies in behavior” is the quickest way to turn reduce the elephant-sized double-bind into something as small as a mouse.

If, for instance, “you work in finance with a bunch of aggressive… men” and your boss “calls you ‘edgy’” politely ask, “‘Edgy compared to whom?’” and open up the conversation.”

Similarly, if, in a meeting, the chairperson constantly refers to you by your first name and all your male colleagues by their surnames, point it out and ask why. The backlash might be unpleasant, but it’s not going anywhere unless we draw attention to it.


I’m neither a bitch nor a bimbo, and I’m sure you’re not either, but until we can undo the double bind that forces us into such gender stereotypes, we’ll be constantly labeled as either one or the other.

Let’s help each other to shrug off those labels by changing our behavior, fine-tuning our body language, and encouraging a more collaborative form of leadership that highlights “the value of a more ‘feminine’ approach.”

[1] Victoria L. Brescoll and Eric Luis Uhlmann, “Can An Angry Woman Get Ahead?: Status Conferral, Gender, and Expression of Emotion in the Workplace”, Psychological Science, Vol. 19, No.3,  2008. pp. 268 -275.

[2]  Deirdre D. Johnston and Debra H. Swanson, “Undermining Mothers: A Content Analysis of the Representation of Mothers in Magazines,” Mass Communication & Society, Vol. 6, No.3, 2003. pp 243-265.

[3] Katherine Hall Jamieson, Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership, OUP, 2005, pp.5.

[4] Gelaye Debebe, “Navigating the double bind: Transformations to balance contextual responsiveness and authenticity in women’s leadership development.” Cogent Business & Management, Vol. 4, Issue 1, 2017.