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Double Bind that competent women face in a man’s world

‘Heads you win, tails we lose - How women are disadvantaged by an unfair perception game,’ maintains Apurva Purohit president Jagran Prakashan as she scours through Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s Double Bind, a Harvard Business Review study and other living examples.

Apurva Purohit
28th Jun 2019
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Communications professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson opens her book, Beyond The Double Bind: Women and Leadership, with an anecdote about women accused of witchcraft during medieval times. Such women had only one recourse to prove their innocence. When drowned, they had to stay drowned. If they managed to rescue themselves, it meant that there was suspect sorcery at work and their fate was the pyre.


Women - men

The concept of Double Bind was developed by British anthropologist Gregory Bateson in the 1950s. It states that you can put people in a situation where there is no good choice even though you are penalised irrespective of the option you choose. That Jamieson uses an example from the middle ages to demonstrate the catch-22 situation that women in the workplace face today is testimony to the fact that while witch hunts have long disappeared, the biases they perpetuated have not.


The dual conundrum women face


Jamieson delves into the hypocritic standards of behaviour women have to deal with at every stage. The womb/brain bind that states that women cannot be good mothers and competent professionals simultaneously; the silence/shame directive that attacks and demeans women who speak out while ignoring the women who don’t. The sameness/difference attitude that considers women subordinate to men when they conform and unnatural if they don’t.


The aging/invisibility parameter that believes that men mature like fine wine while women wither and shrink away. And finally, the most pervasive one that haunts women every step of the corporate ladder – the femininity/competence double bind. If a woman behaves in a ‘feminine’ way, she may be liked, but she may not be respected or seen as a leader. If she operates in a ‘masculine’ way, however, she may be judged and disliked.


In 2015 when Hillary Clinton was campaigning for the presidency, prominent media publications deemed that Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren had more charisma, intensity and passion than her.


Now that Warren herself is running for president, the tides have turned. She has been repeatedly labelled, ‘weird,’ ‘wonky,’ ‘weak’ and decidedly ‘not charismatic.’ Her comprehensive policy proposals make her too much of a ‘nerd.’ The Washington Post ran an article accusing her of charging $675 per hour in consultation fees back when she worked as a lawyer. A convenient oversight was forgetting to mention that not only is that the standard rate for the kind of legal work they specified, but that lawyers with her expertise and education usually charge much more than what she did.


‘Who’ calls that judgement?


A 2013 Harvard Business Review study titled, Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers, tells the story of an investment banker named Amanda. After more than a decade of high achieving records, her career stalled when she was in her thirties. She was told that she lacked presence with her clients, who were mostly male, and was not sufficiently outspoken at meetings. Then she was assigned to work with two CFOs who happened to be women.


They were astounded by her competence, skill and initiative levels and went out of their way to spread the goodwill about her reputation. Amanda’s abilities hadn’t changed. Only her judges had. Robyn Ely, one of the authors of the study, highlights the structural and attitudinal barriers that women encounter while trying to advance in their careers.


She says, Most organisations were constructed by men for men. They’re organised in such a way that makes it easier for men to find their way through, given that men and women have different constraints on their lives outside of organisations. If organisations don’t take that into consideration, and they’re only thinking of men’s experiences, then the avenues to leadership roles are going to be much easier for men than they are for women.”


A ‘black hole’ of assumptions


Attitudes towards men and women have been shaped by centuries of cultural assumptions that women are not only different from men but also inferior. In April this year, the first ever image of a black hole – one of the most enduring and enigmatic mysteries of the universe – was captured on camera. It took a team of 200 scientists from around the globe to photograph the supermassive black hole that lies at the heart of the Messier 87 galaxy, some 55 million light years from Earth. One of those 200 was a 29-year-old post-doctoral student at MIT, Katie Bouman.


Bouman’s ecstatic face as she looks at the image for the first time was captured by a colleague and subsequently went viral on social media. The sheer joy on her face was a mirror of the awe and wonder that we felt as we gazed at this magnetic image.


Bouman’s work was instrumental in the capturing of the image. She led the development of a crucial algorithm that assisted in shooting the photograph. News articles that broke the story of the discovery gave due credit to the team behind it, but also singled her out to celebrate a woman being at the forefront of a scientific achievement of this magnitude.


But what the internet giveth, the internet taketh.


A woman earning accolades in a male-dominated field channelled the attention of concerned netizens who decided she was unjustly usurping the credit from her more deserving colleagues. They combed through her contributions to the project to determine whether she had earned the praise that was coming her way. After assuring themselves that she was an imposter, they practised their democratic rights by heaping abuse online, creating fake accounts and publishing mis-information through them and singling out her male colleagues as the worthy recipients of that fame. Had Katie been a Ken Bouman, would they have raised an eyebrow?


The perception biases that plague our subconscious are augmented by harmful cultural stereotypes that society saddles women with. These cannot be dismantled in a day. Cultivating personal responsibility and awareness, constant vigilance of not getting trapped in employing stereotypes, looking beyond face value of mass media messages, and understanding the myriad ways that both men and women have become inadvertent accomplices to a devaluing status quo, is a good place to start.


(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)



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