This true story was shared with me recently by a friend. A young lawyer worked long hours, did great work, served on firm committees and got along with clients and colleagues. At her performance review, the senior partner noted all of these strengths. But he identified one “area of improvement”: “You are lacking in humility,” he said.
I don’t know the young woman attorney personally, so I can’t swear she was not an obnoxious braggart. More likely, though, she (a Millennial) displayed confidence. That is one of the attributes associated with (and expected of) good managers. But it doesn’t fit with cultural expectations of women. So, I suspect the “double bind” is at play. The double bind is the tightrope women must walk. If they work and behave in feminine ways, they are not seen as leaders. If they act in masculine ways (or too masculine or too often), they are disliked.
As General Counsel of a public company, I once got this feedback: “you have an edge.” Now I worked on the C-level team with all men and all of them were outspoken, assertive and tough. I had the presence of mind to ask, “Compared to whom?” I felt sure I didn’t have an edge compared to my colleagues.
Successful managers and leaders are expected to show confidence, dominance, assertiveness and competitiveness, says a study by Stanford School of Business. The study concludes that women are rewarded for displaying these masculine traits – IF they can “self-monitor” and also operate in feminine ways.
Here’s the double bind. Women who are humble, deferential, collaborative and self-deprecating are not seen as leaders – regardless of their accomplishments. That is exactly what we learn from our culture that women are supposed to be! Women who are confident are “lacking in humility” — or aggressive or pushy.
The recent spread in the Wall Street Journal asks “What’s Holding Women Back”? (The articles respond to the study by McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.com on the slow progress of women reaching the leadership levels of U.S. business.). The “double bind” is one reason. Women can’t act like we expect leaders to act and be liked. It is a delicate balance that only women must face.
I want men and women to become aware of the unconscious mindsets that put women in this and other binds. (Yes, women have them, too.) We know we have a blind spot when we are driving a car; we may not know of a truck approaching behind — so we check. If we know we have unconscious ways of thinking that create obstacles for women, we can stop our kneejerk response. We can stop ourselves before forming the thought that she “lacks humility” – and ask how we’d respond to the same behavior in a man.
Do you expect women to be more humble? Do you like confident women?