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]]>

Revealing Root Causes: What Keeps the Glass Ceiling in Place in the Financial Sector?

So many talented women entrepreneurs with great technology business ideas cannot raise the capital needed to start their businesses from Silicon Valley investors. Likewise, many women in Wall Street firms cannot make partner, or otherwise advance, no matter how well they perform. Even with lots of publicity, such as the recent gender discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, programs put in place to help women advance, diversity programs on unconscious bias, and millions of dollars spent to settle class-action gender discrimination cases, not much has changed on Wall Street for women. What keeps the glass ceiling in place? New research reveals some root causes that could open pathways to change.

Silicon Valley Venture Capital Firms

Let’s be clear. Only 1 percent of the ideas pitched to venture capital firms get funded. The problem is those that get funded are overwhelmingly pitched by white men. Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times notes that of the people who get investment funding to start new businesses, 1 percent are black, 8 percent are women, and 12 percent are Asian, according to data from CB Insights. Here are some of the underlying structural causes of the problem:
  • Men make up 94 percent of partners at venture capital firms, and the business is insular. Miller notes that most investors accept pitches only from entrepreneurs who come through an introduction via their personal networks.
  • Venture firms with female partners are three times more likely to invest in a company with a female chief executive—but a Babson College study found that just 6 percent of partners at venture capital firms are women.
  • Miller cites a 2014 study published by the National Academy of Sciences, which found that investors prefer pitches by men (68 percent), particularly attractive men, to those by women (32 percent), even when the content of the pitch is exactly the same.

Wall Street

Maureen Sherry, reflecting back on her career as a managing director at Bear Stearns, looks at the current statistics for women at Wall Street investment banks and notes that very little has changed, despite hundreds of millions of dollars paid out to settle gender discrimination suits—most recently $46 million paid out by Morgan Stanley and $39 million by Bank of America. She cites a 2015 Bloomberg Businessweek survey that tracked MBA graduates from 2007–2009, which found the following:
  • While women received almost the same pay upon graduating, six to eight years later their pay averaged 20 percent less than the pay of their male classmates.
  • Female graduates of Columbia Business School, who went to work primarily for Wall Street financial institutions, earned 40 percent less than their male colleagues.
Sherry reveals a very interesting root cause for the Wall Street glass ceiling:
  • New employees are required to sign a U4 arbitration agreement “that binds a worker to settle any job dispute with her employer in-house,” usually with arbitrators chosen because they are friendly to the bank. Not surprisingly, roughly two out of three cases are decided in Wall Street’s favor.
  • When settlements are awarded, the employee must sign a nondisclosure agreement, and the stories and patterns of discrimination remain hidden from the public.


Maureen Sherry states unequivocally that mandatory arbitration needs to be banned so that action, in the form of laws, regulations, and public pressure, can be taken to change the culture of Wall Street. As long as the stories and patterns stay hidden, and the deep-pocketed banks barely notice the settlement payouts, there is no incentive to change. As for venture capital firms, we must keep the spotlight on their insular and discriminatory practices and assert public pressure for them to be more inclusive. Bringing these root causes into the open will help us all know what to look for and how to bring pressure for change.   Image courtesy of Ambro at]]>