The Double-Bind, Lack of Feedback and Societal Pressures - Why Women Continue to Go Unheard

In the 1990's Deborah Tannen, a researcher, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University and author of many books and articles conducted several studies about how the language of everyday conversation affects relationships. She specifically detailed the differences in communication between men and women at work. She uncovered that women in the workplace, especially leaders, continue to face this damn'd if you do, damn'd if you don't paradox, otherwise known as the double bind. It was her hope, that with an increase in female leadership and women in the workplace in general, this paradox would disappear.


If you ask me (and every woman I know), the double-bind is still ever present in our organizations. One of the largest impacts of this paradox is the mental labor that it places on women when making any sort of professional decision. It forces women to have to go through a mental checklist of potential backlash due to their identified gender. When you intersect gender with race or any other marginalized identity, the mental load only increases.


To exhibit what I'm talking about, we'll dissect a scenario Deborah Tannen, as mentioned above, outlined in HBR's Women at Work podcast. She explained a situation in which a female leader used the common communication ritual of apology to attempt to get her male team member to also apologize.


Before we dive in, it's important to note that women have been socialized to and often use apologies to soften their language as not to be perceived as too pushy, assertive or aggressive. One potential side effect of the damn'd if you do part of the double bind paradox.


Female Leader: "Gee, sorry you weren't at the meeting, if I forgot to make it clear I was expecting you there, I apologize."


In this situation, the female leader knows that she made it explicitly clear the entire team was required at the meeting and is now expecting her male team member to respond with an apology himself. If she apologies, in turn, he "should" apologize, too.


The response she expects: "Oh yes, you did tell me. Something came up and I'm sorry for not giving you a heads up around the fact that I wasn't going to be there. It won't happen again and I'll connect with a teammate to get caught up on what I missed."


But this isn't always the response that plays out.


In this situation he instead says, "Ya, make sure you tell me next time."


The leader is then left wondering how she got in this situation and confused by his lack in accountability. At this point, it's too late to correct the behavior because she approached it with an apology. By doing that, she took ownership for "not telling him" even though she knew that to be untrue. She's left frustrated and he's left off the hook for skipping the meeting with no accountability for his action.


How she could shift her language for a desired outcome, but with the risk of risking her likability and/or respect. Take two:


Female Leader: I noticed you weren't at the meeting earlier today. I outlined in our last team meeting and via e-mail how important it was to attend this meeting. I understand that we are all human and things come up that may take you out of an important meeting, but I'm going to need for you to give me advanced notice when that's going to happen. When you approach the situation by simply not showing up, that makes me feel like you don't have regard for our team and my time.


This could be taken in a few ways by the team member:


Scenario One: I had no idea the impact of my behavior. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, it was not my intention to make you feel this way and I'm sorry. From now on, if I have to miss a meeting, which is only in an emergency situation, yesterday I had a sick child that I needed to pick up at daycare, I will let you know.


Scenario Two: This is ridiculous, you have no right coming at me like this. I had to pick up my sick child from daycare and couldn't attend the meeting.


Scenario two is very possible for a few reasons.

  1. The double bind women face in the workplace still exists. Damn'd if you do, damn'd if you don't. Women are expected to follow the conversation rituals we are used to them practicing, like apologizing for things they don't need to. When they act differently we're thrown off and turned off by their approach, even if it's appropriate and called for.

  2. Under stress, humans tend to default to a place of anger, apathy or frustration. This team member could be unconsciously defaulting to this place and upon reflection be able to look at the feedback his manager gave him in a different light down the road.

  3. Gender bias exists. The 2021 Women in the Workplace Report published by Lean In and McKinsey clearly outlines the fact that Women face intersecting and compounding biases in the workplace due to many aspects of their identity, and it’s important to recognize this. Bias impacts the way we treat and react to female leaders in the workplace.


The female's first approach makes sense due to the fact that in many cases, she may have had difficult situations escalate into unpleasant and accusatory situations and is approaching this situation with caution.


It's also possible she's never seen an example of effective and actionable feedback herself, so she's unsure of how to model it with her team. New research identifies four key ways in which feedback given to women tends to be less actionable and less effective than that given to men: Developmental feedback for female employees tends to focus on delivery rather than vision, coping with politics rather than leveraging politics, and collaboration rather than assertiveness. It also tends to present a lack of confidence as a fundamental shortcoming, rather than a specific skill that can be developed.


It's likely she's also feeling the societal pressure to be liked. We continuously feed girls and women messages that say they are supposed to be gentle and caring, but traditionally those are not traits tied to leaders. But when women do display traditional masculine behaviors like assertiveness and ambition they are generally disliked.


How do we shift this?

  1. Leaders need to make sure they are providing their female team members with timely and actionable feedback. New research based on a computerized analysis of more than 1,000 pieces of written feedback identifies four key ways in which feedback given to women tends to be less actionable and less effective than that given to men: Developmental feedback for female employees tends to focus on delivery rather than vision, coping with politics rather than leveraging politics, and collaboration rather than assertiveness. It also tends to present a lack of confidence as a fundamental shortcoming, rather than a specific skill that can be developed.

  2. Adopt framework, like Radical Candor or the SBI method for delivering feedback

  3. Male leaders and male peers need to be aware of the societal shaping and pressures that women face from a very early age that prompt them to use language like this. Create leadership development opportunities inside of your organization that 1. draw attention to why men/women use the language that they do 2. Help to suggest alternative and more effective language to use instead

Infinidei partners with organizations to address all three of the growth opportunities above. Fill out our contact us form to learn more.