Too nice, too pretty, too ambitious...

This issue of how women are perceived in the workplace is regularly oversimplified. Perhaps the best example of this is the concept of the ‘double-bind’. A double bind is a dilemma in communication in which an individual receives two or more conflicting messages.

In terms of gender balance, it means that women who succeed are held to a different standard than their male counterparts. To succeed, women must display the traits commonly associated with effective leadership, such as assertiveness. However, when women behave assertively, they may suffer a whole other set of consequences that men typically don’t experience.

Being empathetic, looking for the win-win or simply having a pleasant demeanor can prevent women from being taken seriously, while being direct, assertive or openly ambitious often means they are labelled difficult.

Simply put they cannot win, and these contradictory expectations are just as likely to come from other women as from male colleagues.

In respect of the double bind, women are told to ‘man-up’, that it doesn’t matter if they are liked as long as they are respected. But the challenge of the double-bind is not that women need to be liked, rather there is a significant, long-term impact associated with it. The double-bind can prevent women from receiving crucial feedback that they need in order to progress.

According to research conducted by McKinsey and, managers were more likely to cite concerns about seeming harsh or provoking an emotional response when delivering critical feedback to women.

The double-bind means that women also face bias when giving feedback. Research has found that employees' job satisfaction dropped more when female managers delivered critical feedback than when male managers did.

Once again, this bias existed in both female and male employees, but the male employees surveyed viewed their female managers as less competent after receiving criticism from them.

The double-bind is a particularly insidious barrier that women have to overcome before they can even begin to be assessed on the quality of their work. Some of the ways women can address the issue include:

Asking open questions and pointing out inconsistencies in expectations, for example, if a colleague calls you ‘bossy’ ask ‘compared to whom?’

If your contribution is overlooked until a male colleague makes the same point, don’t let it go. Highlight the fact that you’ve already raised the point and are glad that your colleague agrees.

Ensure the relevant people know who you are and know your work. Find a sponsor to advocate on your behalf who can help raise your profile and highlight your work.

It’s important to get issues out in the open, otherwise they will always stay outside the awareness of those who aren’t impacted. Every conversation, every email and every meeting is an opportunity to begin redressing the balance.