One of the most difficult manifestations of externalized bias is the double bind for women. It's a constant tightrope we walk.
We must balance the irreconcilable demands of meeting societal expectations for women—demonstrating female characteristics, like being compassionate, warm, communicative and collaborative—with the expectations for leaders, which are dominated by male characteristics of being forceful, assertive and dominant.
The dilemma is that when women display the male characteristics of "taking charge," they are seen as competent but aren't liked. Conversely, when we display the female characteristics of "taking care," we are viewed as less competent.
Ideally, men and women alike would incorporate both styles of leadership—taking charge and taking care—into the evolving expectations of what the most effective leaders do. However, the current external bias forces only women to be seen as either taking charge or taking care rather than placing the same expectation on men to embrace both.
The double bind is exhausting for women. This externalized bias of strong leadership qualities being perceived as "male" holds women to a higher standard than it does men. It requires us to spend much more time at work proving ourselves as competent while hiding or downplaying the natural strengths we bring to leadership to live up to the male-dominated stereotypes of leadership.
It was decades after I began my career that I realized how this external bias had trapped me in every leadership role. Today, when I hear anyone call a woman leader too "aggressive" or "ambitious," I take a deep breath and tell my best double-bind story.
The Cupcake with a Razor Blade
It was 1996, and I was destined to prove myself as a competent manager in a dream job I had just secured as a public relations manager at the Coca-Cola Company. My first assignment was managing the news media and branding for Coca-Cola's title sponsorship of the Olympic Torch Relay. The company had aligned its brand to the Olympic flame for decades, but this Olympic Games was special, as it was being hosted in Atlanta, home of Coca-Cola headquarters.
We had a talented team of more than 100 people working to ensure the company received positive recognition for the Olympic flame's migration from Athens to Atlanta. It was a celebratory caravan that would span 87 days, 42 states and 15,000 miles, and would pass through 10,000 carefully selected torchbearers, a group comprising local community heroes.
There is always natural tension between an Olympic Organizing Committee and the sponsors who are critical to helping fund and activate the Games. The Olympic Rings are held as pure and sacred, and the brand is protected fiercely by the International Olympic Committee and local Olympic organizers. However, the sponsors need to benefit from their significant investments in the form of public awareness, positive association and, ultimately, loyalty to and purchase of their products.
I was determined to win the brand battle for Coca-Cola as we shared the Olympic flame with the Unites States across the days, weeks and months leading up to the Opening Ceremonies. I was focused, ambitious and competitive in my quest to prove myself a worthy professional in this very visible role.
David was my counterpart on the Atlanta Olympic Committee, and I needed to cooperate and collaborate with him to succeed, but I also needed to meet the clear objectives of my assignment. He quickly became my rival, trying to prevent our media blitz and block our team from access to the very reporters we needed to engage. Ultimately, we lost some battles but won the overall war. In the process, I knew I was disliked by the Olympic Committee's communications team, but in my relentless pursuit of victory and accolades from my own bosses, I accepted my role as "villain" and persisted.
Our weary team was greeted by wildly cheering colleagues at the Coca-Cola headquarters as the caravan with the Olympic flame made a final stop before the Opening Ceremonies that evening. My boss, a brilliant Brit named Brendan Harris, bounded up to me at the finale of our three-month odyssey to congratulate me on a job well done. He had a huge grin on his face and said, "You'll never believe what David just called you—it's hilarious." I looked at Brendan in anticipation as he casually dropped a mental image I still can't erase more than 25 years later. "He said, 'Jennifer is like a cupcake with a razor blade inside.' "
Brendan interpreted this comment as a point of pride, a description of a deceptively soft, sweet, lovely outer package with a sharp, deadly, fierce weapon concealed inside. And while I wasn't sure it was an insult, it certainly didn't strike me as a compliment. I was first confused, and later devastated.
I now see this analogy for what it is: a perfect example of the double bind that women have faced since entering the professional ranks, toggling between all the expectations of the masculine stereotype of the ideal leader (the razor blade) alongside the feminine stereotypes of the ideal woman (the cupcake). A man would never be described that way.
It is only in retrospect that I acknowledge the real challenge we need to overcome—the perception that a woman can only be either the cupcake or the razor blade, when in fact we need the entire spectrum of gender operating as both "taking charge" and "taking care." The feminine force and characteristics should not be perceived as purely fluffy and soft; nor should masculine energy be seen as a force that purely slashes and destroys. We are all complex and multifaceted with different strengths, and we are all higher manifestations than the stereotypes we're often reduced to. It is in honoring and integrating strengths across gender roles that all leaders will become more effective.
More Excerpts from In Her Own Voice:
External Bias and Its Impact on the Advancement of Women
How I Engaged with a Critical Mentor Who Helped Me Succeed
Jennifer McCollum is the chief executive officer of Linkage, a SHRM company. This article is excerpted from In Her Own Voice, © 2023 by Jennifer McCollum. Reprinted with permission from Matt Holt Books, an imprint of BenBella Books, Inc. All rights reserved.