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The Double-Bind Effect

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

Regina Gómez (MBA '25) highlights a topic of discussion amidst reviewing the ‘Heidi Rozen’ case in LEAD.

A profound silence filled our Aldrich classroom. As our LEAD professor progressed through the slides, the figures and data revealed some disheartening yet all-too-familiar truths. A study conducted across various universities illustrated that when students read Heidi Rozen, a LEAD case with a male protagonist named “Howard,” they described him as ‘trustworthy,’ ‘authentic,’ and ‘intelligent.’ But only moments before, many in our section had labeled “Heidi” as ‘manipulative,’ ‘deceptive,’ and ‘inauthentic.’ Our discussion delved into many reasons for this disparity, including our own inherent biases and cultural conditioning. However, the concept that resonated deeply with me was the “double-bind effect”.

At its core, this notion underscores the tightrope women often walk, balancing warmth and empathy with competence and assertiveness. I reflected on my professional journey, recalling times when I had suppressed my warmth to project a composed demeanor. Even more disheartening were the occasions when displaying a touch of vulnerability resulted in being labeled ‘too emotional for the role’ by former managers. Disturbingly, I was not alone in this experience. Many of my female sectionmates voiced similar sentiments, expressing their discouragement from our class discussions. Later that week, over a heartfelt dinner, we exchanged stories of grappling with this paradox in both our professional and personal lives.

Upon returning home, my thoughts circled back to our conversation, prompting two pressing inquiries: What is the essence of the double-bind effect, and crucially, how can we navigate its challenges? Are there any practical tips we can apply?

The double-bind effect

The double-bind effect captures the pervasive tension women in leadership frequently grapple with: the delicate balance between “niceness” and “toughness”. In a 2018 Harvard Business Review article, Wei Zheng, Ronit Kark, and Alyson Meister astutely label this tension as a Catch-22, emphasizing that these traits are often perceived as diametrically opposed. This sentiment found a powerful echo in America Ferrera’s portrayal in Mattel’s Barbie™ film, where her character delivers a poignant monologue:

“It is literally impossible to be a woman. [...] You have to be a boss, but you can't be mean. [...] You have to be a career woman, but also always be looking out for other people. You have to answer for men's bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you're accused of complaining. [...] You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It's too hard!”

Such sentiments deeply resonate with the experiences of many of my peers, especially those who have navigated male-dominated sectors like financial services and investment banking. Straddling these polar expectations over the years is draining. For some, it is not merely a sapping of energy but leaves lasting marks, manifesting as social anxiety. Queries like, "How should I act?", "What attire is appropriate?", or "What tone of voice should I adopt?" are frequently pondered upon throughout our professional journeys. Zheng, Kark and Meister, encapsulate these dilemmas into “4 balancing acts” that women grapple with daily:

Act 1: “Demanding yet Caring” - Female leaders are expected to set high standards for their teams while simultaneously exhibiting empathy and genuine concern. I have experienced this duality firsthand. A colleague once remarked that I seemed distant from their concerns. Yet, when I made an effort to be more present, the very same individual yearned for a firmer push. The irony was not lost on me.

Act 2: “Authoritative yet Participative” - Female leaders should exude authority, but also invite collaboration and display vulnerability. A peer encapsulated this when she said, "I recall being urged to include more people in a project as if my independence was misconstrued as arrogance."

Act 3: “Self-Advocating yet Serving Others” - There is a balance between pursuing one’s ambitions and ensuring the collective goals of the team are met. An HBS colleague confided, “I hesitated to ask for a salary hike, fearing it would seem overly aggressive... I felt obligated to prioritize my team.”

Act 4: “Maintaining Distance yet Being Approachable” - A former supervisor of mine captured the essence: “Being overly friendly can lead to misinterpretations, suggesting impropriety. Conversely, maintaining too much distance can be mistaken for indifference. It is exhausting!”

It is safe to contend that most women encounter at least one of these quandaries in their daily roles. Yet, the overarching challenge remains: How do we mitigate this ceaseless pressure? How can we recalibrate these deep-rooted perceptions?

Is there a way through it?

Regrettably, as Zheng, Kark, and Meister emphasize, for the double-bind effect to be truly eradicated, society’s expectations of women’s roles must undergo a radical transformation. While some nations have made commendable strides in fostering dialogue around these issues, others, including my home country of Mexico, lag behind in redefining their perception of women’s contributions in the workplace. However, after extensive research and insightful discussions with my remarkable HBS peers, we have identified three tactical strategies that have proven effective in their past professional settings and hold promise for our future endeavors:

  1. Find your allies: It is almost a certainty that another female leader in your professional realm has felt as you do. Engage with them; initiate those challenging discussions and strategize collaboratively. There is solace in solidarity and shared insights can lead to innovative solutions. One section mate shared, “We established a dedicated women’s group at my previous firm. It provided a haven to address biases and challenges we faced as professional women.” Maybe, having an ally from such a group beside you in a meeting can embolden you, reassuring that your assertiveness will not be misconstrued.

  2. Open the conversation: Fostering open dialogue between genders can significantly reduce the disparities and tensions we grapple with daily. Following our class discussion, numerous male peers expressed their solidarity and support for our cause. Impressively, one began employing female pronouns exclusively when referencing high-ranking positions. Another HBS colleague advised, “Initiate a dialogue with your male counterparts at work. Seek their perspective, engage in candid conversations, and strive for mutual understanding.” This could enlighten team members, helping them appreciate our leadership style and its unique challenges.

  3. Combat stereotype threat: There are times we inadvertently shy away from actions, fearing they might reinforce negative stereotypes – like appearing too passive or not assertive enough. A section mate recounted an approach inspired by Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: “Expose yourself to narratives that shatter these stereotypes. For instance, acquaint yourself with the story of a female role model you admire and her challenges ahead of a daunting meeting. Drawing strength from her journey can bolster your own confidence.” I would go a step further: start each day with an inspirational read. Fuel your ambition and drive. Sometimes, we might unwittingly be amplifying the double-bind effect, and a daily dose of self-reflection and motivation can recalibrate our approach.

While these are but three strategies, I remain committed to expanding the dialogue and delving deeper into research to uncover more actionable methods for navigating the double-bind effect. Additionally, if you possess insights or suggestions that could benefit our fellow female peers, please do not hesitate to connect with me. Your perspective is invaluable in this collective journey.

Regina Gomez (MBA ’25) was born and raised in Mexico City, Mexico. She graduated from Tecnológico de Monterrey with a degree in Economics. Prior to HBS she worked at Mastercard and an early-stage fintech as a Global Strategy and Operations Manager specializing in the payments industry.

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