In 2023, the number of women in the C-suite and on executive boards increased by 12 percent. Women are often expected to be pleasant, accommodating, and friendly, and when they do not conform to these expectations, they may be perceived as “difficult,” “cold,” or “unapproachable.” The “double bind” women face in the workplace refers to the fact that they are often caught between conflicting expectations or stereotypes. Specifically, women are often judged harshly for being either too “aggressive” or too “soft” in their behavior, making it difficult for them to succeed in leadership positions.

Types of conflicts women face

Female leaders often face conflicts based on behaviors not usually encountered by their male counterparts. Here are some of the conflicts that female leaders may face:

  • Assertiveness vs. Aggressiveness: When female leaders assert themselves, they may be viewed as aggressive or bossy. In contrast, assertive behavior in male leaders is often perceived as confident and strong. Because of this, 48 percent of women avoid raising issues at work to avoid being seen as a problem themselves.
  • Competence vs. Likeability: Female leaders may feel the need to prove their competence more than male leaders, who are often given the benefit of the doubt. However, when female leaders prioritize competence, they may be seen as less likable or approachable.
  • Emotionality vs. Rationality: Female leaders who express emotions, such as frustration or disappointment, may be seen as too emotional or unstable, whereas male leaders exhibiting the same emotions may be viewed as passionate and committed.
  • Work-Life Balance vs. Dedication: Female leaders may face judgment for prioritizing their personal lives, such as taking time off to care for family members or prioritizing self-care. In contrast, male leaders are often praised for being dedicated to work and putting in long hours.
  • Appearance vs. Competence: Female leaders may face criticism or scrutiny for their appearance, which is not usually a focus for male leaders and can distract from their competence and skills.

Related: Adopt These 4 Components of Effective Leadership for a Successful New Year

The consequence of labels

When women exhibit traits traditionally associated with male leadership styles, such as assertiveness or confidence, they may be seen as “bossy” or “aggressive” and may be penalized for violating gender norms. On the other hand, when women exhibit traits traditionally associated with female stereotypes, such as nurturing or empathy, they may be seen as weak or lacking in authority and may be overlooked for leadership positions.

This labeling can have significant negative consequences for women in the workplace. The double bind can:

  • Make it difficult for women to find a leadership style that is both effective and acceptable to others.
  • Create a sense of pressure or anxiety, as women may feel constantly judged or evaluated based on their behavior.
  • Lead to women being overlooked for opportunities, underestimated, or undervalued, and can create a hostile work environment.
  • Produce additional pressure for women to constantly monitor and regulate their emotions, which can be exhausting and detract from their ability to focus on their work.
  • Cause women leaders to work twice as hard as their male peers for the same recognition.

Emotional intelligence and navigating the “double bind”

Emotionally intelligent leadership is the ability of a leader to recognize and understand their own emotions and those of others and to use that information to guide their thoughts and actions. This type of leadership can significantly impact a team’s success, as it creates a positive and supportive work environment and helps build trust and credibility with team members.

Emotional intelligence accounts for almost 90 percent of what sets high performers apart from their colleagues with similar knowledge and skills and can be critical in helping women navigate the “double bind” they face in the workplace. Many of the conflicts that arise from the double bind can be addressed through emotional intelligence.

Women with strong emotional intelligence skills can:

  • Manage emotions: Learn self-awareness and regulate their emotions in response to bias or discrimination, allowing them to maintain their composure and respond more constructively.
  • Cultivate empathy: Recognize and address the emotions of others, allowing them to build stronger relationships, foster collaboration, create a supportive environment, and manage conflicts more effectively.
  • Learn to adapt to the situation: Become more adept at adapting their leadership style to different situations, which can help them to avoid the “double bind” by balancing the need to be assertive and authoritative with the need to be empathetic and nurturing. A Stanford study found that women who could switch between assertiveness and being more passive—based on circumstances—were more successful than other women and men.

Related: Leveraging Emotional Intelligence in the Hiring Process

By developing their emotional intelligence skills, women can become more aware of their own emotions and the emotions of others, which can help them better understand how to navigate challenging situations. Women in leadership positions can defy stereotypes by cultivating self-awareness, empathy, and managing emotions. By embracing and supporting women in developing emotional intelligence, your organization can create a more equitable and inclusive culture where women can thrive and lead without compromising their authenticity or facing unfair biases.

This blog was written by TalentRise’s Leadership Coach, Kristen Lampert