Can Women Finally Say What They Want At Work?

Can the "double bind" finally be a worry of the past? Finally, women can actually be themselves at work and be viewed as leaders.

For years, women have been told to communicate in the middle ground between aggressive and timid.

Say “we” instead of “I.” Don’t be too sweet or too shrill. Veer too far over the assertiveness line and you’ll be seen as brusque and bitchy. But if you’re too nice, you’ll be seen as soft. Either way, forget about a leadership role.

And the research seemed to back that theory. In 2007, New York City-based nonprofit Catalyst conducted a widely publicized study about women facing that “double bind,” being perceived as either too nice or too harsh.

A February 2010 study in the Journal of Personal Psychology found that women anticipate that negotiating on their own behalf will generate backlash, which often inhibits them from asking for what they want or deserve.

But times seem to be changing--New York Times’ editor Jill Abramson’s recent firing notwithstanding. An April 2014 article in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that, while men tended to rate themselves as more effective leaders in the workplace, women scored higher in effectiveness when others’ ratings were counted.

Instead of worrying about toeing the line, women should focus on the key areas that make everyone better communicators, says executive coach Amy Jen Su, co-founder of McLean, Virginia-based Isis Associates, and co-author of Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence.

Fewer boundaries, more authenticity.

Worry less about others' expectations of how you’re supposed to speak and act and focus on who you are and what’s most effective for you, Su says. If you’re outgoing and gregarious, don’t try to play the part of the buttoned-up type. If you’re excited about something, it’s okay to show it. Trying to be something you’re not is just going to ring false with everyone, she says.

While women are sometimes counseled to speak in terms of “we” instead of “I,” and to avoid claiming ownership of their accomplishments, that’s a recipe for never being chosen to lead, says Charlotte Beers, former Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs reporting to Secretary of State Colin Powell, former CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, and author of I’d Rather Be In Charge. Beers advises women to not be shy about claiming their successes.

Beers says that communicating fiercely and passionately is well-trod ground for men, but not so much for women. Be brave and keep going, even if it takes you a while to get the hang of it, she says. Beers calls it an art form that women have to learn.

“[Men] have, for years, gained this kind of code of how to speak in that way--how to be brave, how to be boastful," she says.

[Image: Ljupco Smokovski via Shutterstock]

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3 Comments

  • Thanks for the article. I'm happy, and not too surprised, to see that being genuine is an asset at the office even for women.

    In the interest of being genuine, I personally feel belittled by the photo chosen to accompany this article. I'm not typically a woman who cries out "offensive!" But in an article about women's professional progress, it's at least ironic to accompany the article with a picture of a partially-naked woman who is tied up. I haven't seen any woman in my office show up in bondage garb. Was this the only stock photo of a woman that Fast Company had on file?

    Giving a woman professional respect means giving her some clothes and leaving her hands free to fight.

  • Kate Liotta

    The photo is an artistic representation of an internal state, the feeling of being bonded. A photo of a typical woman just hanging out in her office (which seems to be what you are asking for here) would be boring and irrelevant. I don't see why this has to be offensive.

  • I understand that it's a representation of an internal state. It is a beautiful image. I just think it would look more appropriate in an art gallery or on the cover of a novel about a woman struggling with the double bind of a torrid love affair (perhaps with a vampire?) and her professional life. I cannot envision a man's double bind between work and home life, for example, being represented that way. It makes me laugh just thinking about a man exposing his neck with his bare shoulders showing, wrapped up in bandage-looking material. Ha!

    I think in this context, maybe a double bind could have been represented without the sexual undertones. Just something to consider on a section of the site labeled "Strong Female Lead." I don't think that should mean "lead with her neck and naked shoulders." Thanks.