How Women Can Learn to Stand in Their Power -- and How Men and Companies Can Help Them

I think it's high time that we move beyond belaboring the challenges, and instead focus on real solutions that can help free women from this pervasive double standard in Corporate America.
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Remember the Goldilocks Syndrome? This is the one that pointed out the double bind that women leaders face: that unlike men, women who act too assertively in the workplace are penalized, but that women who fail to be assertive are also punished. Back in 2007, Catalyst called this dilemma "damned if you do, doomed if you don't."

We haven't come very far since then, with studies within the last year and analysis within the last month continuing to point out the same problems. I think it's high time that we move beyond belaboring the challenges, and instead focus on real solutions that can help free women from this pervasive double standard in Corporate America.

To address this catch-22 and help women stand in their power as leaders, it's important to focus on a three-part solution:

Men need to combat their own internal biases. There's no question that all human beings have biases. The problem with this is that most of the time, we lack self-awareness about our own biases and thus don't recognize how they negatively affect our relationship with others, as well as business results. We've all seen the studies that show how men are given a free pass or promotion for exhibiting the same leadership styles and behaviors that women do. Whether acting confidently or tentatively, women are judged more negatively in identical situations. It's time for men to take ownership of their role in creating these biases, and make a point of noticing when their double standard is in play so that they can change their approach. Men need to become more aware of their own language and outdated assumptions that perpetuate the double bind for women. They should step up and hold themselves and other men accountable for their actions and behaviors that contribute to the problem.

The point is that women and men are in this situation together, and need to work in tandem to help women avoid being put in a double bind. Without men's partnership in combating how unfairly women are judged, it will be much harder to make progress. There's plenty of incentive for men to do this. It's already well established that organizations with more women on their leadership team and board of directors tend to outperform companies with fewer women in those roles. When men take action to change their biases about what qualities constitute a great leader of either gender, more companies will be able to enjoy these proven advantages.

Companies need to call out bad behavior--and take action. Most companies today are on board with the idea of striving toward fairness when it comes to male and female leaders. But it's not enough anymore to just talk the talk. Organizations, institutions, and the media need to move beyond simply reporting issues that show a double standard in play. Instead, they need to call out that it's not okay to treat female execs differently, state the exact reasons why this behavior is not acceptable, and spell out consequences for noncompliance. To do anything else encourages an unconstructive mindset company-wide that keeps women stuck in the same double bind.

To combat the double standard, all organizations should prioritize creating a culture of accountability where everyone understands the value and advantage of having and leveraging gender-based differences in the workplace. Some forward-thinking companies, like McKinsey, have taken it a step further and developed a corporate approach to leadership that's specifically designed to help push back against the unique challenges that female leaders face in the workplace, including the double bind. McKinsey's centered leadership approach is just one way that organizations can take action to acknowledge and maximize the unique strengths and sensibilities that women bring to leadership roles.

Women need to stand up for their own value. Third on this list but first in priority is what women themselves can do to abandon a victim stance and claim their full power and potential as leaders. We go on about the Goldilocks Syndrome as "one of the biggest disadvantages women face in business today," point fingers at women for needing more confidence to lead, and continue to hammer home that "Women leaders don't have it easy." Tell us something we don't know. It's time to change this broken record of woe is me and damned if we do/damned if we don't, with its focus on how women are devalued. The research phase in identifying such trends is important, but we have the facts now. Let's move forward together toward managing and ultimately changing this situation rather than just complaining about it.

To do this, women need to recognize their abilities, stand up for their value, and do the same thing for other women around them. We have many opportunities to do this every day--any time we become aware of being faced with the double bind. For example, a female CEO attended a board meeting of her parent company and found she was the only woman at the table. Her male colleagues leveled subtle critiques at her, ranging from her style of dress to her leadership style. She was told that she was "too collaborative," "asked too many questions," and wasn't getting to the "real answers" to the problem.

The CEO knew that these points were actually her differentiating; strengths that helped balanced the thinking around the table. So she respectfully but boldly responded to the men in the room. She looked right at the chairman and said, "I respectfully disagree with you, and the behavior in this room is unacceptable, as it would be for me if I projected this kind of behavior. Everyone around this table is an executive running a significant part of this organization, and we all need to be treated with the same respect." With her words, the attitude in the room shifted, and within seconds, the men leaned in and she gained the attention and respect she deserved.

In some cases, men may simply be unaware of the biases contained in the words and actions that they're accustomed to using in meetings with just men. It can change the whole dynamic when women call out bad behavior and help men understand the double standard. If only 50% get the message, that's still 50% more who will be sensitized to their own internal narrative and the actions that flow from it. Over time, others will follow their lead in making changes that can help release women from the double bind.

The CEO's story is just one example of how you might use your power to keep others from diminishing your leadership style, capabilities, or brand. As you start to do a better job using your power to defend and promote your own career success, you can use that same strength to support other women around you. When you partner effectively with men, organizations, and the women whom you lead, mentor, and report to, you can begin to move women beyond the victim role and into a more equitable leadership suite.

Learn more about SHAMBAUGH's nationally renowned signature Women in Leadership and Learning (WILL) Program

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