The Divided Self: The Double Bind

By Whitney Harper

Tuesday, March 14th 2017

When living in Cairo, Egypt I had the opportunity to visit the architectural wonders of many previous rulers and stand in awe of how their legacies have weathered the storms of political, environmental, and religious changes. There is one temple that is unique in comparison to all the others – the memorial temple to Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahri. The structure dominates the Valley of the Kings due to its location nestled into the cliff face that rises sharply behind it. It rises toward the clouds with dramatic ramps, which induce a procession as you rise from the valley floor to each of the three colonnaded terraces. It’s awe-inspiring. The architecture, though stunning, isn’t the most unique feature. It is the fact that it was built by a female pharaoh.

Hatshepsut was a very effective ruler, increasing massive infrastructure projects and extending trade routes for Egypt. How she went about securing her power and amassing accomplishments involved an impressive mix of masculine and feminine affiliated traits. Her rise to power came through her nurturing role as the stepmother to the infant pharaoh, Thutmose III. And yet, once she took full power as pharaoh, she commanded that images of her depict a masculine figure with facial hair and large muscles. This tension between the expectation and ability to ‘take care’ and the desire to ‘take charge’ is what leads to the modern “double bind” for many women today.

In the workplace, when women exhibit more feminine characteristics they are viewed as soft, agreeable, and maternal. This can be wonderful in certain circumstances, especially when the circumstances require fire prevention versus firefighting. But being seen as only a caretaker can limit how a woman is viewed as a leader and if she is promotion-worthy. On the flip side, women that exhibit traditionally masculine characteristics of being assertive, delegating, and commanding are viewed as too aggressive and difficult to work with. This is the double bind. How are women to behave in a professional setting without being penalized by stereotypes?

Consider the table below. It outlines the common behaviors by leaders that are stereotypically feminine and masculine:

How Leader Behaviors Connect to Feminine and Masculine Stereotypes[1]

Feminine Behaviors – Taking Care

Masculine Behaviors – Taking Charge


Encouraging, assisting, and providing resources for others


Identifying, analyzing, and acting decisively to remove impediments to work performance


Providing praise, recognition, and financial remuneration when appropriate

Influencing Upward

Affecting others in positions of higher rank



Facilitating the skill development and career advancement of subordinates


Authorizing others to have substantial responsibility and discretion


Developing and maintaining relationships with others who may provide information or support resources



Checking with others before making plans or decisions that affect them



Encouraging positive identification with the organization unit, cooperation and constructive conflict resolution



Motivating others toward greater enthusiasm for, and commitment to, work objects by appealing to emotion, value, or personal example



When you review the list above, which behaviors do you tend to lean on most heavily? Are they skewed more towards stereotypical masculine or feminine traits? Taking stock of your behaviors starts to build self-awareness as to how you are perceived, which will help you to be more agile when navigating the double bind. 

Self-awareness as a leader is a trait that has been praised since ancient times, as demonstrated by Hatshepsut. In his classic book The Prince, Machiavelli asked a provocative question that gets to the essence of self-awareness: “Is it better to be loved or feared?” The ability to choose to be loved or feared is predicated first on the ability of the leader to control how their actions are perceived. Today, if a woman chooses to govern from a place of love versus fear, acting in more of a ‘taking care’ or ‘taking charge’ role, the question isn’t whether she will be loved or feared, but if she will be respected.

Maintaining this paradox is an incredibly powerful skill, one that when harnessed correctly can lead an army to victory, such as Joan of Arc, or start a movement, thank you Sheryl Sandberg. Today, more than ever, the world needs women who know how to navigate this double bind. So how can you do it? Two simple steps can start you down this path:

First, stop:

  • Repeating stereotypes about yourself. Quiet your inner critic if you are reinforcing negative perceptions such as not being strong with financials, or uncomfortable with confrontations.

  • Critiquing women who don’t act in typical gender behaviors.

Second, start:

  • Self-monitoring to determine when it is most effective to behave in a ‘take care’ or a ‘take charge’ style of leadership. For example, being supportive when an employee comes to you 1:1 with some personal concerns; problem-solving when there is a crisis and an upset customer is threatening to cancel their contract. Choosing to be supportive or problem-solving may be appropriate in both scenarios and as a leader it is important to have the ability to pivot between the two and know which will have the desired impact.

  • Reducing ambiguity. Stereotypes have greater influence when criteria are unclear. An example to illustrate this point is defining criteria for a promotion when there aren’t clear requirements.

Building awareness of the impact of the double bind on female leaders is the first step to limiting its effect and potential detriment. If this issue has been around for eons, you may be asking yourself: why does it still exist and why haven’t I heard of Hatshepsut? Her legacy is still being researched as her stepson eradicated most of the evidence of her rule, such as destroying physical images of her. But a massive temple that guards the entrance to the Valley of the Kings proved to be too significant of an architectural construct to destroy. It bears a helpful reminder to be conscious of how you expend your resources and carefully craft your legacy. To effectively rise to power and create impact, leaders need both ‘take care’ and ‘take charge’ skills. Celebrating female leaders who have navigated the double bind creates a road map for future leaders who are free to craft a legacy that will stand the test of time, such as Hatshepsut’s memorial temple.



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