Double Binds

As always the NPR podcast The Hidden Brain had my mind churning today (Episode 48*).  This one was talking about the double bind women find themselves in when they strive for leadership positions.  I am sure any woman reading this doesn’t need much explaining.  The basic idea is that if you’re nice (as you are stereotypically supposed to be) you’re weak, and if you’re a competent strong leader you’re unlikable. The lack of representation of women in government and as CEO’s of fortune 500 companies is pretty good evidence of this.  And I know professional women experience shades of this regardless of whether or not they are vying for top leadership positions.  Just asserting yourself can have you seen as bossy, bitchy, abrasive.  Attributes that rarely get prescribed to men when they are assertive.  And there are other double binds beyond the scope of the podcast such as additional judgments that go along with their appearance that men often don’t have to face.  The expectation to maintain the home, and take a lead role in parenting in addition to their own personal ambitions.  For many women it seems like there are consequences no matter what they choose.

What my mind started to think about, in addition to the challenges women face, is why would we consider a “nice” woman a “weak” woman?  In terms of leadership attributes studies are showing the importance of empathy in a leader.  Another episode from the same podcast (Episode 43) reported that people who were empathetic inspired more people to follow them than those that were authoritarian.

research-women-frenemies-friends-390x285One thing that has always bothered me about the oppression of women and I feel doesn’t get talked about as much is the devaluing of those qualities that we typically associate with women.  Why is kind, nurturing, or emotional a bad thing?  In a fascinating story (also in podcast form, but written about here) a new method for improving safety on oil rigs was employed where employees (all male) were trained to become more openly emotional.  To be vulnerable.  The results were astounding with an 84% drop in the accident rate.  Many of the workers also forged more meaningful relationships with their spouses and children as a result of being more emotionally open.  Today we see how many of the stereotypes that men face, as a consequence of those feminine characteristics that we devalue, are equally harmful and dehumanizing to them as well.  The key difference between these gender stereotypes is that one is valued and one is not.   Maleness is the standard.  I wrote about this in one of my earliest blog posts concerning a biologist who talked about how the male of every species is the one usually depicted in textbooks and used as the star in major animated features.  Feminism is a fight for gender equality and important one.  But I worry sometimes that too often the fight is women trying to achieve that standard of maleness, as opposed to celebrating those feminine qualities and seeing them as having value, seeing those a strengths, and not weaknesses.  I’ve always gotten along with women better than men, because I have always been drawn to that dialogue that is open emotionally.  It has helped me grow, become wiser, become stronger, and in my opinion is a superior way to be human.

And that’s what it really boils down to:  defining what qualities make for a healthy human.  I don’t mean to be binary here in my discussion because there are so many qualities that are beneficial to us as human beings. Distributing those qualities among men and women and automatically assigning value to one because it belongs to a certain gender isn’t really what we should be after.  To put it another way, is gender equality about having more female Donald Trumps, or is it about having more female Bernie Sanders?  Maybe it’s both, but I’d certainly like a world with less Donald Trumps.

I don’t mean to criticize feminism here, because in the end I believe in the value of a woman’s right for self-determination.  If she wants to be a power-hungry authoritarian leader then so be it.  I simply have never found much to like in such an individual.  Man or woman.  My friend Victoria over at Victoria Neuronotes has told me that I am a man who is in touch with my feminine side.  I take that as a compliment, but I’d rather think that I have gained a better understanding of how to be human.  Women, at least the ones I have known, have always represented the best in humanity to me.  As a man I have often felt that I would be better off to try and reach their standard as opposed to what the patriarchy has decided as the standard.

Women have and still do bear so much in this world at the hands of men.  Maybe it’s because they’ve been given the freedom to be more human that has helped them survive through so much unspeakable dehumanization by men.  Those emotional, empathetic creatures who are great at listening and nurturing.  Maybe true gender equality is only reached when we recognize what qualities put humanity at their best and that these qualities are ones we all should strive for.  This is why feminism, to me, is not just a plight for women, but something that we all should see as important.

*Note:  The Hidden Brain Podcast on Women and Leadership challenged each listener to share it with one man and one woman.  I thought it was worth it for more to hear it.  I’d love to hear what you have to say about it.

9 thoughts on “Double Binds

  1. Swarn, thanks for the shout-out and for another excellent read. Have you seen this? It compliments your post.

    ” This is a man’s world,” sang James Brown, summing up the opinion of chaps the world over.

    How bitterly ironic for us then, that, according to a recent piece of research, the significant evolution of humankind was apparently due to the ‘feminisation’ of early man.”

    I look forward to listening to the podcast.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Victoria. These are wonderful articles. The Telegraph piece…well I looked at the comments. Utterly amazing that so many don’t seem to get what the author was trying to say. It does very much echo what I’ve written. I am not saying men bad women good. What I’m trying to say, and what I thought the author of the article was trying to say is that feminine qualities which have been historically devalued, might be ones that we all need to embrace a lot more. The anthropological evidence he sites seems to demonstrate this to be the case.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yes, exactly. They are human qualities, but have been attributed as feminine, and therefore, as you mentioned, devalued. I did a post on this in 2013, on my other blog, regarding an experience I had with 3 marines. I encountered, first hand, what happens when men go from a hyper-masculine state to allowing themselves to be vulnerable. It was a moment in time I’ll never forget.

        I quote an excerpt from an article written by a man who addresses the unrelenting promotion of hypermasculinity in our culture, and many people are not aware that they are being conditioned to see this as something men should identify with, and women should be attracted to.

        “With the ubiquity of mass-communication – whether it be magazines, newspapers, movies, television or the Internet – it’s not surprising that many men look to popular culture for sources of information what male behavior is supposed to be and how we’re supposed to display it.

        In the most recent issue of the journal Sex Roles, psychologists from the University of Manitoba examined the prevalence of hypermasculinity – the ideology of exaggerated male traits as the epitome of masculine identity – in advertisements in popular men’s magazines including Maxim, Playboy, Game Informer, Fortune, Esquire and Wired.

        Hypermasculinity portrays violence and physical aggression as manly ideals; it promotes a world where all of male life is a struggle of dominance of others, where sex is a matter of power and female submission rather than one of intimacy and mutual pleasure and that any “feminine” emotions are to be repressed.”

        I live in a hypermasculine region of the country. It should not come as a surprise that this area of the country also has the highest rate of social ills.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. ” Maybe true gender equality is only reached when we recognize what qualities put humanity at their best and that these qualities are ones we all should strive for.”

    It is difficult to achieve equality in a system (gender) that has been specifically designed to value one set of traits’/aspects over another. The gender hierarchy exists as a vehicle to keep the patriarchal status quo in place.

    It may be better to consider that the problem is that system of gender, in itself Striving to be more equal within the bounds of a fundamentally unequal system seems to me to be a bit of Pyrrhic pursuit at best.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment. I don’t disagree with you. I did mention the problems that the patriarchy has created. All I am saying is that when we fight for equality we should also think about what we are striving for. I simply feel that the patriarchy has set the standard to reach as maleness, but that may not be where we want to go. Antiquated mindsets do get broken, and having a more complete vision of what a new mindset should be doesn’t seem like a bad thing to have.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Life After Doubt

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post. Forgive me if I ramble or get off track…but that “nice = weak” business hit a nerve for me….

    I worked many years as a regional supervisor. I am approachable and extremely easygoing. I smile often, and something about me causes people to always assume they should apologize for using poor language in my presence. I have had a lot of employees over the years, and as even the guy who ended up being taken away in handcuffs will tell you – I am very very NICE.

    Nice? The horror.

    I have worked under both men and women who wanted to be liked so much that they avoided confrontation and direct criticism. THAT is the niceness that equals weakness. But I believe people who lead through intimidation are also weak; they will be met with just enough effort from employees to avoid being hassled, and will see high turnover. They fail miserably at motivating employees and earning their respect. And yes, this does extend to presidential candidates….

    Tough conversations and decisions can absolutely be presented pleasantly. People respond best to leaders they trust and respect; but also to those who set clear expectations, give honest feedback, and are on the employee’s side. It is amazing what you can accomplish with employees who love their jobs and want to help their supervisors meet goals.

    To your larger point: I do think these leadership qualities are found in both men and women – although perhaps there is some difference in how I connected with my managers as a woman which did give me an advantage. I find your thoughts on listening and nurturing to ring true. Heck, I’m still regularly “counseling” several people who I haven’t worked with in over a decade. Is that as common for men who held my positions? I wonder.

    This is something not often explored when it comes to discussing qualities of leadership – particularly the ways we connect differently with men and women in relation to emotion and trust. Although I have come up against double standards (from corporate supervisors of mine who were always men) which held me back, overall I have not found value in adopting a more traditionally masculine leadership style. You have caused me to think back on some specific experiences, and I think I could write all day on this topic 🙂

    (I have since left this line of work altogether and am blissfully working for a wonderful company owned by close friends.)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You ramble well my friend. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your experience with this topic. I certainly agree that “nice” in of itself is too vague to necessarily equate with effective leadership and your example was definitely a good one. In my mind I was looking at the kind, empathetic part of nice. It just seems to me that in this double bind we spend more time focusing on the why can’t a woman be strong and competent and be given the same level of respect as a man. And this is a valid point. However “nice” can be a valuable and strong quality in a leader, and even if not vying for a leadership position I think “nice” women tend to get pushed around over being respected.

      Ultimately it seems like you are someone who is comfortable in their own skin enough to always just be you in your leadership role, and then deal with the consequences of that, knowing at the end of the day you were true to yourself. That sounds like a pretty good leadership quality…or rather just a pretty good human quality. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Swarn,

    An excellent, broadly written perspective of a sensitive yet very important issue. Well done Sir!

    Like you, I desire to speak more from a “human level” than gender level as well. And though I still (more) infrequently bumble things when stepping into this sensitive arena, just the other week a licensed psychologist with over 21-years of practice, a strong Feminist herself, told me “[Professor], it is so nice to talk openly, freely with a man who “gets it”, who is intellegently and emotionally in touch with women, feminism, and on the correct side of current toxic issues in that regard!” I told her just how GOOD it was to hear that and receive affirmation like that from such a woman/human-being AND from her occupational field! We’ve been dating since early June! 🙂 😉

    Maybe true gender equality is only reached when we recognize what qualities put humanity at their best and that these qualities are ones we all should strive for. This is why feminism, to me, is not just a plight for women, but something that we all should see as important, [together!]

    BAAM!!! Spot on! It is such an important social-occupational issue — has been since at least 1848? — to keep moving in the right directions, and as equally important, to move there as humans united, inclusive, and guard against hyper-exclusion. Thank all goodness in the world Swarn that YOU are definitely one of those much needed humans Sir!

    Bravo!!! So proud to know you Sir! ❤


  5. “And that’s what it really boils down to: defining what qualities make for a healthy human.”

    Bam. (Oh, funny – awhile later while proofing my response, I see Prof T’s BAA directly above mine!)

    Practitioners of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) would say the Patriarchy has yanked the world into an overabundance of Yang. This has severely restricted the flow of Yin, and there is a perilous imbalance, as a result. One need only observe to recognize this. The human race has proliferated beyond reason; imposed itself upon every other species, taking far too much to heart the Biblical interpretation to go forth and exert dominion. Dominion Over.

    I don’t have all the answers, but for sure we ought to be asking the questions. As many as we can come up with. Now to find the key to prying open all those closed minds out there …

    Aloha, Swarn.

    Liked by 1 person

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