• Sean Kelly

International Women’s Day: The Double Bind Bias; Empowering Women Leaders in the Workplace

Responding to the call

International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world on the 8th of March, a staple in Women’s History Month that makes women’s issues a focal point for all.

The theme for 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge; based on the premise that a challenged world is an alert world. We all have the individual responsibility to choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. Perhaps uniquely, behavioral science has the means to provide insight into the biases that women face. Retrospectively, we see that the most insensitive decisions and harsh judgements are often made under the influence of behavioural biases, which leads to the continued battle for the recognition of women’s issues from a global perspective in your very own office environment.

Framing the issue

More women are working than ever before. As of June 2020, more than two-thirds (72.7%) of women aged 16–64 are employed in the UK, a percentage that has risen from 52.8% in 1971, when the Office for National Statistics first began recording this data. However, during the pandemic, women were 5% more likely to have lost their jobs due to Covid-19 than men. In addition, 60% of essential workers are women, and women comprise 77% of the labor force which is at high risk of contracting Covid-19. Furthermore, the majority of mothers are now able to work, with the number of mothers, and non-mothers participating in the workforce almost equal (74.1% and 75% respectively).

So, we are all good, right?

This all changes when we shift our perspective to look at the percentage of women in senior leadership roles. In 2018-2019, not so long ago, women represented 18.6% of executive committee members, 29.5% of direct reports, and 27.9% of both roles combined in the FTSE 250. If we climb even further up the ladder, these numbers become even more dismal, where only 8 women (3.2%) held CEO roles in the FTSE 250 as of October 2019. This lack of women leaders creates a scarcity of role models that can inspire other women to enter and, importantly, stay in the workforce.

So why is there a mismatch?

Studies have shown that unconscious bias is rife in the workplace. Gender stereotypes, in particular, permeate the environments in which women work. This has very much been seen by research. Experiments have shown that the brain categorizes people by race in less than one-tenth of a second, about 50 milliseconds before determining sex. If that wasn’t enough, a Yale University study found that male and female scientists, trained to be objective, were more likely to hire men, consider them more competent than women, and pay them $4,000 more per year than women.

“Superwomen in a Double Bind”

Unlike their male counterparts, for women, success in the workplace takes more than just job competency and ambition. Female leaders are not just expected to lead, but are often tasked with additional emotional labor. They need to be both direct and authoritative while maintaining a likable image. This often leads to them ending up in a bit of a bind.

The Double Bind Bias:

This can be described as a problem of a mismatch between what is expected of a leader, and what is expected from a woman. This is often as a result of biases that affect women. Research has shown that there are two primary kinds of gender bias that affect women, the descriptive and prescriptive bias.

We can define a descriptive bias as the labels we attach and associate with certain social groups and communities, and prescriptive bias is how they are expected to behave. When someone does not conform to these prescribed roles and behaviors they can be penalized or punished. There is the expectation for women to be caring, warm, emotional, among other traits, and men are expected to be assertive, rational, competent and objective. So, when it comes to promotion, these traits are sometimes automatically prescribed to people due to their gender without consideration of other factors, like their individual personalities; therefore, in general, men are assumed to be a better fit as a leader.

When a woman does not fit the role that is traditionally assigned to her, and attempts to claim what is seen to be a male position is seen as breaking the norm, this is a prescriptive bias. So, when a woman is decisive, she might be perceived as "brusque" and "abrupt", or even “bossy”. Therefore, for the same kind of leadership behavior, women might be penalized while a man is commended.

This brings us to the problem of "likability", where women who are not assertive and fit the gender stereotype of a woman as being gentle and caring tend to be liked more but not considered as leadership material. On the other hand, women who display traditional "masculine" qualities such as assertiveness, forcefulness, and ambition are labeled as "bitchy", unfeminine and aggressive, and hence generally disliked. In both cases, women are then less likely to be promoted than a man. Men do not face the same problem, because what is considered "bossy" in a woman are considered leadership qualities in a man. Thus the double-bind effect.

“As a man gets more successful, he is better liked by men and women, and as a woman gets more successful, she is less liked by men and women.” – Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In

Consider this:

A Fortune study found that while 58.9% of men’s performance reviews contain critical feedback related to their skills, 87.9% of women’s reviews focus on critical feedback and references to their personalities. So we can see that women not only have to work harder at their jobs to be taken seriously, but they’re expected to adjust their behavior to avoid seeming emotional or confrontational. Meanwhile, men can exhibit dominant, competitive behaviors in leadership roles without having to walk the tightrope between their gender and their job.

Overcoming biases to work towards an equal society

The long-held assumption that women take care and men take charge seems to persist, even though women today comprise more than half of the talent. Women hold some 60% of graduate degrees, and the majority (64% of senior women, according to Center for Talent Innovation) are eager to be promoted.

It is important that we are aware of these biases that can exist unknowingly, recognize and acknowledge them, since by naming these biases we can alleviate their power over the system at large. There is no point saying that we are all unbiased and unprejudiced, because these are unconscious biases that are shaped by our cultural and social conditioning.

For both men and women, it is important to speak out and interrupt if they notice any remarks that demonstrate this kind of prejudice, such as "she is emotional" or that "she is not very caring", as these can affect how competence is perceived, and these are usually not labels that would be assigned to men in the same situation.

Appropriate bias training is important for all members of a group so that they are aware of not only their actions but also the language and words that they employ. Words, even when meant as a joke or banter, can create a feeling of mistrust rather than a positive workplace. It is really important that we create a culture where men are entered into this debate as much as women, and are seen as ambassadors for equality and female leaders. Likewise, it is also important to consider that it is not only men who carry these biases, women can discriminate against women too, and penalize other women for being successful, or aspiring to be.

Most importantly, companies and organizations have to take a closer look at their workplace policies and redefine what a "leader" really means. We need to renew our perspective on the traditional gender norms, and the way we assign leadership qualities.

From challenge comes change, so reflecting on this International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, let's all choose to challenge. Raise awareness against bias.


Office for National Statistics, Labour Market Overview, UK: June 2020 (June 16, 2020).

Office for National Statistics, Employment in the UK: June 2020 (June 16, 2020).

Fawcett Society, Exiting Lockdown: The Impact on Women (May 2020).

Aleksandra Wisniewska and Daniel Thomas, “Reporting of UK Companies’ Gender Pay Gaps Tumbles in Pandemic,” Financial Times, May 28, 2020.

The Hampton-Alexander Review, The Hampton-Alexander Review: FTSE Women Leaders (November 2019): p. 15.

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