Blogs / 22 Dec 2022 3 min

The great double bind – to avoid being penalised, women must operate within a narrow range of acceptable behaviours

Gender stereotyping means that relative to men, women can experience a lower return, and even a penalty or backlash for demonstrating stereotypically masculine traits such as ambition, confidence and assertiveness in the workplace.

When women operate outside of gender stereotypes, they tend to be penalised; for example, assertive women might be described as bossy, and women negotiating on their own behalf are less likely to achieve the same outcome as men. This backlash directly impacts their confidence and leads women to operate cautiously.

In practice, we see that around one in two women worry about how they come across in meetings, with this rate even higher for women with a disability, young mothers, lesbians and bisexual women. Even at executive level, 49% of women are concerned about these perceptions.

Further, around one in two women avoid raising work-related problems in the workplace for fear of being seen as a problem themselves. Women are cautious about negotiating salary increases, with one in two women feeling “greedy” for seeking a pay rise and worrying about the social consequences of asking for – but not receiving – a raise. Given that around one in three women don’t feel able to negotiate their terms, it is easy to see how this barrier can compound gendered salary differentials.

The research findings 

In our recent study of 2352 women in the UK, we found that 54% of our surveyed women are worried about how they are seen in meetings, we can make a fair assumption that these women are holding back and therefore not operating at their full potential.

We found that just under half (48%) of women avoid raising problems at work because they do not want to be seen as a problem themselves. Half of the women surveyed feel greedy asking for a pay rise and 56% worry about the consequences of asking for a raise and not getting it. Twenty nine per cent of women didn’t feel able to negotiate the terms of their offer and interestingly this statistic increased to 40% for women in the energy and infrastructure industry, indicating that some barriers are higher for women in this sector.

What this means for organisations

Organisations can help to counteract gender biases by changing processes and systems first.

Although awareness and behavioural change is a critical step in making a cultural shift, engrained gender biases are hard to undo. By focusing on processes and systems first, organisations can drive change at scale, demonstrate their commitment to equality and create the impetus for behaviour change.

Four practical actions that organisations can take now:

  1. Audit your talent processes, frameworks and cycles for biases and stereotypes, and counteract them
  2. Embed gender calibration into your talent reviews to call out gender biases
  3. Address gendered pay disparities with robust data analysis and monitored action planning, and ensure transparency and objectivity in the way reward decisions are made
  4. Actively monitor gender ratios in hiring and promotion to identify and address any systematic blockages, particularly around the ‘broken rung’ (first line leader appointments)

We recommend that you pay particular attention to how processes and practices impact women at the intersection of disability, sexual orientation and ethnicity, as well as perimenopausal women, all of whom experience the double bind barrier more acutely.