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Gender Wars Not Only Create Conflict Among Women, They Create Significant Workplace Stress

How Women Can Mediate Gender-Biased Conflict and Stress

This post is in response to
The Bitchy Boss and Other Fables: How Bias Against Women Becomes Conflict Among Women

Brava to Psychology Today blogger Joan C. Williams and co-writer Rachel Dempsey for their article, The Bitchy Boss and Other Fables: How bias against women becomes conflict among women. Their point that gender bias can create and perpetuate conflict between women in the workplace (what they call "gender wars") is well-taken. As Psychology Today's High Octane Women blogger, I'd like to expound on a few of their points, especially with respect to the stress that such conflicts create for working women, and offer a few suggestions for dealing with such conflict and reducing stress. 

While it's true that there are a multitude of non-gender-related issues in the workplace that cause stress (e.g., inadequate resources, increasing workloads, longer hours), gender-related workplace stress is often the most difficult to cope with, particularly because it's often invisible. Two of the most prominent forms of gender-related workplace stress are double binds and stereotypes.


A double bind is a dilemma in which a person is presented with two contradictory messages or choices, making the dilemma challenging to resolve. Coined by Gregory Bateson and his colleagues, a "double bind" involves two or more people: one (or more) who sends the message and one who is the "victim." Another component of a double bind is that the direct message presented to the "victim" must be a contradiction of some kind, one that makes the victim feel as if she can't comment on or notice it. The final two components are that it's an experience that repeats itself over time, and the victim isn't able to "escape" the situation, usually because some relationship binds them together.

Due to the nature and structure of most workplaces, women are more likely than men to experience double binds on the job. For example, a common double bind experienced by women in the workplace relates to how "leadership" is judged. "Good" leaders are expected to be strong, confident, and assertive. Yet, when women act in strong, confident, and assertive ways, they tend to be perceived as uncaring, self-promoting, and aggressive--all of which have negative connotations. Here's the catch, though. When women act in more collaborative ways, they're viewed as not having "good" leadership skills.

According to Catalyst, a research and advisory organization that works with businesses to expand opportunities for working women, "These polarized perceptions [about leadership] represent a type of ‘all-or-none' thinking that does not apply to men in leadership roles."1 And the consequences are steep. Not only do these perceptions negatively affect women's advancement, they impact their salaries, their perceived status among coworkers, a woman's overall sense of security and safety in a company, and their stress levels.


Gender stereotypes are false representations or misrepresentations of reality based on gender that typically go unspoken, yet unconsciously govern our thoughts and actions. As Catalyst describes, "Because most people are not aware of how their thinking and behavior are automatically influenced by stereotypes, they conclude their perceptions come from objective observations. This is why stereotyping is so difficult to address--we all do it, but we often don't realize or believe that we do."2 As a result, gender stereotypes have the potential to become "a powerful yet invisible threat to women leaders and the organizations in which they work and lead," which often cause their impact to be underestimated.3 In fact, one of the most challenging problems with gender stereotypes is that they're hard to detect and even harder to control. Rarely are these inaccurate "judgments" openly discussed, which can create "invisible barriers" that impede women's advancement.


Gender stereotypes can have a significant impact on the way in which working women are viewed by their colleagues as well as their chances for advancement. For example, women generally are viewed as better at "taking care" skills--supporting and encouraging others--while men are generally seen as having better "take charge" skills, such as problem solving, assertiveness, and influencing supervisors. Although these views are often inaccurate, the fact that they exist color the way in which males and females are judged in the workplace.

Furthermore, while both of these "qualities"--taking care and taking charge--may in fact make a good leader, the reality is that stereotypical masculine traits tend to be considered important, often essential, components of effective leadership (note here that I'm referring to leadership as defined historically by men). That is, assertiveness and problem solving skills are viewed as more consistent with leadership whereas being supportive and encouraging are viewed as more consistent with being a follower. As a result, women seeking leadership positions usually have to work much harder than male candidates to "prove" they possess these stereotypical masculine leadership skills. In addition, women often have to overcome the inaccurate perception that because they may excel at supporting and encouraging others, they can't excel at other things, such as leading, problem solving, and being competitive. And again, these perceptions themselves--that women are more supportive and men are more influential and assertive--are often inaccurate anyway.

Gender stereotypes and double binds often work hand in hand. For example, when women's job performance is measured in stereotypical ways, it often places them in a double bind. Studies have shown that when women act in ways that are consistent with gender stereotypes (e.g., supportive, encouraging), they tend to be judged as more personable and therefore are better liked, yet they are seen as less competent. When they act in ways that are inconsistent with gender stereotypes (e.g., assertive, strong, problem-solvers), they tend to be judged as competent, but overly aggressive and not likable.4

Understandably, such binds can lead to feelings of frustration and anger. But when women express feelings of anger and frustration on the job, they're often labeled as overly emotional or they're seen as unable to handle the stress of the more demanding position. Because these "judgments" often occur inside a person's head and aren't directly visible, they're difficult to detect and difficult to combat. And more often than not, it's this inability to control what is happening that wears women down and makes them prime targets for chronic stress and burnout.

It's also important to note, as Williams and Dempsey point out, that gender-based views about stereotypical feminine and masculine traits are prevalent among both genders. In other words, women are equally as likely as men to judge other women who are assertive as "bossy" or "bitchy" and men who are assertive as "strong, competent leaders."5


Although I agree with Williams and Dempsey when they say that "automatic bias is built into the automatic, everyday-ness of workplace interactions and identities, and will persist until it is identified and organizational structures are put in place to correct it," the reality is that significant workplace changes have been slow in coming, and waiting for change is only likely to make working women's stress worse. Unfortunately, this leaves the challenge up to women to find solutions that make it easier for them to navigate the challenges they face in today's workplaces, most of which were designed and shaped for centuries by men for men. Although such built-in biases aren't easy to resolve, here are a few ideas you may want to consider.

Metacommunication: Successfully navigating double binds and stereotypes in the workplace can be quite challenging, but that doesn't mean they can't be navigated. One of the more effective ways to do this is to directly comment on the double bind or stereotype rather than allowing it to silently inflict stress. The process of calling attention to a communicated message is called metacommunication. It's basically communicating about communication, and it can be a powerful way to reduce the power of a double bind or stereotype.

Metacommunication is done by giving people direct feedback about the binds they put you in. For example, you might say something like, "I wonder if you realize that when I directly comment on the weaknesses in John's plan, you say I'm being overly critical and harsh. But when I take a more subtle approach, you seem to get frustrated and say things like, "Why can't you just say what's on your mind?" or "Stop pussyfooting around and just say what you think." 

In some cases, you may have more success if you do your metacommunicating privately, with only you and the other person involved in the conversation. But sometimes talking about the issue in a group setting can be effective as well. You should use your best judgment when deciding which approach to take, considering both the potential benefits and consequences (and there almost always are both). You also may have more success if you take more of a Columbo approach to metacommunication ("I'm a little confused. This happened and then this happened, and I'm wondering if you realize ...") as opposed to a confrontational or accusatory approach ("I can't believe that you just ...").

But whichever way you choose to handle it, by talking about it, you're basically putting the bind back into the hands of the "sender." In other words, you're removing the implicit agreement of silence between you and the sender, which takes away one of the critical components necessary for a double bind to work--the silence that gives it strength. Not easy to do, I know. But the alternative is to allow it to eat away at you and increase your risk for stress-related problems and ultimately burnout.

Of course, it's unrealistic to expect all senders to recognize the error of their ways, fall on their knees, and beg forgiveness with promises to never bind you up again. And I certainly can't guarantee there won't be any backlash. However, calling attention to something is the first step toward changing it. A sender may well think twice before trying it again, knowing that you're no longer going to silently sit by and let it happen.

A similar form of metacommunication can be used with respect to gender stereotypes. For example, rather than sit there and stew with anger (which just raises your stress level), speak up the moment you hear or see something that you feel is unfair or inaccurate. Again, I'm not promising there won't be any backlash, but the alternative is to prolong the life of something that should have died long ago.

As an example, I was having lunch a while back with a group of attorneys. One of them was talking about how she had spent a week trying to convince the prosecutor in one of her cases that her client should get probation. That day the prosecutor called to tell her that he was going to agree to the terms of probation she was asking for. One of the male lawyers at the table commented, "That guy has no backbone," referring to the prosecutor. "If you'd have gone in there gang busters, I bet he'd have given your guy even less time." This clearly didn't sit well with her, and she immediately responded. "Or he'd have put my guy in prison. I'm happy and my client's happy. Just because you might have handled it a different way doesn't make the way I handled it wrong. Sometimes a scalpel is more effective than a sledgehammer." Surprisingly, given that this was a group of mostly male lawyers, there was no retort.

Actions Speak Louder than Words: Some women take a different approach to gender biases and stereotypes. Instead of commenting directly upon them when they happen, they simply show where their strengths lie and act consistently. For example, a judge shared with me that when she first took the bench, many of the lawyers in her courtroom seemed to think that because she was soft-spoken and a female that she would be a push-over. Her response: "I never addressed it openly. I just did my job every day. I ruled consistently. When the situation called for it, I judged harshly, and when there were extenuating circumstances, I was more lenient. I think if you asked them now, they wouldn't judge me one way or the other. I think they'd say I'm fair."

Separate Who You Are from the Underlying Message: In some cases, the reason double binds and stereotypes cause women so much stress is because they go to the essence of their identity and exacerbate any insecurities they have. This is completely normal. Few people are so self-confident that they're never affected by anything that is said about them. In fact, if that were the case, I'd be much more worried about them than those with normal insecurities. With that said, however, there are times when women are better served by separating their identity from the communication. Instead of taking the message personally, you may be better off focusing on what the messenger is trying to communicate. Sometimes the message is more about the sender than it is about the recipient. Seeing the double bind from this perspective sometimes reduces its power and therefore its mental impact on you.

Leaving the Race: Another option, albeit much more dramatic, is to leave the situation that is causing the stress. This can be difficult, particularly in a bad economy. However, some workplaces are so toxic that the only way to survive is to leave. Of course, a decision such as this should never be made lightly, impulsively, or in anger. But if after careful thought and conversations with people you trust, you decide that the situation is irresolvable, the best choice for your future health, happiness, and overall well-being may be to leave, or if possible, ask for a transfer to another department where you believe there may be fewer issues.


As more women gain access to upper level management and executive positions despite the odds against them, the gender-biased perceptions, images, and definitions that have been held so long about what makes a "good" leader and what makes someone "competent" will hopefully begin to slowly disappear, making room for more equitable definitions that aren't as dichotomous. In fact, if what Kathleen Gerson describes in her book, The Unfinished Revolution, offers a glimpse into the future, it will not be only women who will be the agents of change in the future.6

According to Gerson, both the men and the women in what she refers to as the "children of the gender revolution"--the generation now moving into the workforce--have high hopes for a world where they can have a career and a family that are unrestricted by rigid gender roles, and they want a workplace that can provide that.7 Hopefully, the diversity of their experiences will shape the workplace into a place where the needs of families and the unique qualities of women will no longer be punished, but will be welcomed and embraced.


1Catalyst, The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don't (New York: Catalyst, 2007), p. 15.

2 Catalyst, Women "Take Care." Men "Take Charge:" Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed (New York: Catalyst, 2005), p. 6.

3 Catalyst, The Double-Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership: Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don't, p. 1.

4 Ibid., p. 11.

5 Women "Take Care." Men "Take Charge:" Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed, p. 5.

6 Kathleen Gerson, The Unfinished Revolution: How a New Generation is Reshaping Family, Work, and Gender in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

7 Ibid., p. 3.

© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved.

Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).