Most of us are familiar with the proverbial glass ceiling and gender inequality in the workplace. If you haven’t experienced or witnessed it yourself, then you’ve certainly seen the data confirming it exists. So what are we going to do about it?

Ruchika Tulshyan is an award-winning author and strategist who advises companies on diversity and inclusion strategy and communications. Her book, The Diversity Advantage: Fixing Gender Inequality in the Workplace, offers insight and case studies on why gender equality ought to be a priority for everyone in an organization and how some of the best companies worldwide have made inclusion part of their culture. Recently, Ruchika hosted a workshop for Schwabe Williamson and Wyatt’s female attorneys, clients and friends. Attorneys, engineers, fashion designers, and chemists alike shared expressions of understanding and illumination as Ruchika discussed the concept of the “double bind” and some concrete tips on how to communicate in a way that accounts for and combats the bind. This article attempts to scratch the surface.

The Double Bind

“Double bind” refers to the dilemma in which professional women often find themselves:  either be liked and not respected, or respected and not liked.[1] Research reveals that men are largely seen as leaders by default, but when women try to conform to such norms, they are seen as “atypical.” The dichotomy of stereotypical male and female characteristics roots the double bind and sets professional women up against a hill to success that is steeper than the path her male colleagues are up against. For women of color, who face an additional layer of stereotypes, that hill is even steeper.

How to Deal With It

Ruchika empowered the crowd with tools she has found most successful. Some of those included the following:

  1. “Just” and “Sorry.” Take these words out of your vocabulary. You were not “just” thinking. You were thinking and you had a great idea. You do not need to be “sorry” that it took you a day to prepare a thoughtful reply to a question. Consider trying the alternative phrase “I appreciate your patience.” This phenomenon is so widespread that Google now offers the “Just Not Sorry” plug-in which will underline phrases like “Just” and “Sorry” that diminish the writer’s voice, akin to a typo caught by spell check.
  2. “I” versus “We.” Women are more inclined to give credit to the team and others before, or sometimes instead of, highlighting her own efforts and accomplishments. Challenge yourself to lead with an “I” statement describing what you did before following up with a “we” statement describing the valuable work of the team.
  3. Amplification. President Obama’s female staffers found this tool to be particularly effective to combat the fact (backed up by decades of research) that women tend to get interrupted more often— by both men and women — and are given less credit, or even penalized, for speaking out more. When a woman makes a key point, in a meeting or on a conference call or in court, repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forces the room to recognize the contribution and denies the chance to deprive the idea-giver of credit.

  4. Feedback: Substance vs. Style. Research demonstrates that women tend to receive more feedback regarding style than substance. For example, a woman is more likely to receive feedback that she spoke too quietly, loudly, “shrilly,” or aggressively – without receiving any feedback regarding the substance of what she said – than a male counterpart. Ruchika offered a helpful tip to use in response. Ask: “I hear that feedback regarding style. What did you think of the substance of my presentation/remarks/opening statement/etc.?”

  5. Arrive Early. Women have a tendency to overbook themselves with back-to-back meetings and tasks. As a result, we are often arriving at a meeting just in time for it to begin. Critical relationship building and business development can occur during the time prior to the meeting when everyone is sitting around getting ready to begin. Make it a point to arrive early to the meeting and become part of the conversation.
  6. Seek sponsors – both male and female – in your community and workplace who will champion you to others behind closed doors and risk their reputation or credibility to lift you higher. Be a sponsor yourself.

These tips don’t eliminate the glass ceiling or gender bias. That is a fight we must continue. In the meantime, consider using these tips in your daily practice to recognize the double bind, confront it, and empower yourself.

See, e.g., the definition by Catalyst, a research organization focused on gender and inclusive leadership in business.

Sign up

Ideas & Insights