Over the years, much has been written about the ‘double bind’ that women leaders face. With Hillary Clinton’s run for President, media attention on the topic has only increased. Those who display what society has labeled as traditionally ‘feminine’ characteristics are often perceived as not having the ‘right stuff’ for leadership. Those who display traits that society has associated with men rate low on the likeability scale, often being labeled as aggressive and bossy. This is what Catalyst called “damned if you do, doomed if you don’t” conundrum for women in leadership.
For the next generation of women leaders, I have observed a new ‘double bind’ emerge. These women face the conflicting portrayal of two critical aspects of their identity: their generation and their gender. Are they entitled, self-centric narcissists or are they individuals in need of increased focus on ‘self’?
- On the one hand, popular media continues to criticize millennials for their individualistic, even self-centric nature. Commonly publicized traits include “narcissism”, “selfishness” and “entitlement”. Conscious of these perceptions, I have seen many young professional women actively avoid ‘stereotype threat’: They try to eliminate the aversion they believe their leaders and clients have to working with millennials; They try to prove that they are not as self-centric as the media portrays them to be. With their fear of confirming the negative stereotypes of their group, they avoid a focus on ‘self’ in professional environments.
- In direct contrast to the above messaging, women are often told they lack confidence, they do not self-promote and they are less self-assured. These are all characteristics and behaviors positively correlated with advancement. To address these perceived deficits, I have seen women across organizations and industries attend courses focused on self-improvement, including popular titles such as ‘Creating Your Value Proposition’, ‘Tooting Your Own Horn’, ‘Mastering Business Presence’, ‘Building Your Personal Brand’ and ‘Crafting Your Elevator Pitch’.
Millennial women are now caught in another ‘double bind’:
Do they focus on self, while risking the continued critique as the ‘narcissist’ generation or do they deprioritize self to counter millennial stereotypes, while potentially hindering their own advancement?
If we continue to critique the millennial generation’s individualist tendencies, we could be unconsciously undermining the ability of women within this generation to advance. We are yet again placing women in a double bind scenario “damned if they do, doomed if they don’t”.
To reconcile this tension, we need to ensure that we are not giving millennial women contradictory messaging. We can’t tell women that their advancement is dependent upon self-assertion, self-promotion, self-confidence, and self-development and then complain about the self-centric focus of millennials. As Lauren Noel and I highlight in our recent ICER report on millennial women:
“Let’s not confuse knowing who you are, knowing what you need, and having an enterprising spirit with being selfish”.
There is a clear opportunity to accept and embrace the millennial focus on ‘me’ and integrate this into individual and organizational women’s advancement strategies. In an effort to eradicate paralyzing ‘double binds’ and advance the next generation of women leaders, it is time to eradicate the mixed messaging and embrace millennial women’s commitment to ‘self’.
*Definition: ‘Double Bind’ (noun) is an emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which an individual receives two or more conflicting messages, and one negates the other. This creates a situation in which a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other (and vice versa), so that person will automatically be wrong regardless of the response.