Four Reasons Why the Bar Is Higher for Women in Authority Roles

I have been curious for a long time about the persistence of double binds, which create challenges for women in leadership that men do not have to deal with. My interest in this question shaped my own research, published in my recent book, New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together. A new article by Carol Hay offers some thoughtful perspectives on the deep cultural roots that keep these double binds in place. In her article, Hay writes from the perspective of a female professor and describes the confusion of both male and female students about what to expect from her as a female authority figure. I believe that everything she describes has widespread application and can also be said for women in authority or leadership roles in most other types of organizations.

  1. The Madonna-whore cultural script limits women. Hay notes that we lack cultural scripts for how to deal with women in authority. Women are locked into limited cultural scripts described by Freud in 1925 as the “Madonna-whore” complex. Freud explained that men can only see women in either the Madonna/mother role, where the expectation is that women will only express compassion or unconditional acceptance, or as sexual objects. I submit that women have also internalized these scripts about women. In addition, Hay cites feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins, who writes that the cultural scripts for women of color are even worse—“mammies, matriarchs, welfare recipients, or hot mommas.” Hay notes that there is no middle ground for women, thus setting up the double bind dynamic. She states, “My male colleagues don’t have these problems. There’s no shortage of roles they can avail themselves of in trying to reach their students.”
  2. Father knows best: another cultural script creates additional challenges. Hay states that “in our culture, men are the keepers of the intellectual flame . . . and can use their positions of authority to inspire a student. Female professors have no such personae available to them.” This same challenge exists for women leaders in most other types of organizations when women leaders are expected to “dispense hugs” and not wisdom or constructive feedback.
  3. Few cultural scripts exist for women as leaders of women. Both past and current feminist philosophers such as Simone de Beauvoir and John Stuart Mill, and more recently Sandra Bartky, have described the difficulty women have with accepting leadership from other women—a finding also in my own research. Hay notes Bartsky’s description of the phenomena of internalized oppression at play in this dynamic and shares her experience with a current-day example from academia: “surprisingly few female students seek out female mentors.” I think this probably maps to recent studies showing that both women and men prefer working for a male boss.
  4. Women are responsible for the emotional work. There is an unspoken, unwritten expectation that women will do the emotional work in the workplace because, Hay writes, “women are thought to be naturally caring and empathic.” One of my colleagues, a senior HR professional, gave this example: “Male leaders are more likely to ask a woman for help with personnel problems than to ask another man.” This is work that women are expected to do that takes time and is not recognized, rewarded, or expected from men. The bar is higher for women and they are penalized harshly and vilified if they don’t play this role.

The Challenge

“We lack cultural narratives to make sense of women in positions of social power or authority,” explains Hay. “The ones we have haven’t changed much since the days of Freud and de Beauvoir. This failure of cultural imagination affects women’s political, economic, and social prospects. It always has.” We need new role models for women in authority. We need to figure out how to be those role models, while dealing with the old cultural scripts that are still operating about women. What has worked for you? What new models have you seen and admired in women leaders?   Image courtesy of marcolm at]]>

1 thought on “Four Reasons Why the Bar Is Higher for Women in Authority Roles”

  1. Thank you for your continued work and for your insightful commentaries on the challenges women in authoritative positions face. Your research and blogs always get me thinking and inspire me to examine how my role as a professional woman plays out.


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