As we make our way through our lives, we each will have our share of wicked problems. We struggle with raising a family, with finding a career, with making ends meet, with trying to find a balance between what we have and what we want, with getting through college, with making the business profitable, with creating and sustaining intimate and meaningful relationships, with trying to meet the demands of our communities and churches, with trying to be responsible citizens, with managing our life transitions with grace and equanimity, and on and on.
But it is clear that in many ways it is worse for women than for men, especially for women who choose to have careers working in organizations.
Over hundreds of years, culture and society have conspired to make the lives of women more complicated as well as more difficult than men. Their dilemmas often appear in the form of what anthropologist Gregory Bateson called the Double Bind. In the mid -1950′s, Bateson and his colleagues defined a double bind as a situation in which two contradictory demands are made on a person who cannot – but is expected to – satisfy them both. Furthermore, the person cannot easily remove himself or herself from the situation and is likely to be punished in some way for not fulfilling both demands. To be put in a double bind is to be put in an impossible, no-win situation.
An example of a fairly benign double bind is advice given to a teen age son by his father: ”Be yourself, only better.” If the son focused upon “Being Himself,” his emphasis would be upon accepting and valuing himself as he was. He could conclude that he was worthy of respect and admiration. When he considered the “Only Better” part of the advice, however, he would be pulled in the opposite direction. Something must be wrong with him if what he should do is “get better.” Being satisfied with “being himself” would be seen as incomplete or even inappropriate.
There are other many other examples of double binds that are not benign; perhaps the most famous is Catch-22, which serves as the central theme in Joseph Heller’s famous novel.
In our society, many of the most troublesome double binds seem to have been reserved for women. For example, in her book Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership, Kathleen Hall Jamison identifies five predicaments or double binds that women who aspire to leadership positions in organizations must contend with:
- Womb/Brain: The dilemma of “produce or reproduce,” do meaningful work or give birth to children and be responsible for raising them.
- Silence/Shame: The dilemma of being silent and respected, or speaking up and run the risk of being ignored or shamed.
- Sameness/Difference: The debate over when men and women should be treated the same and when they should be treated differently.
- Femininity/Competence: The predicament for women being seen as feminine and competent at the same time.
- Aging/Invisibility: The dilemma for aging women also being seen as vital, alive and sexy.
Most women who find themselves in the rough and tumble of organizational life will recognize the”damned if you do and damned if you don’t” aspect of these dilemmas. While most men are active participants in the enactment and maintenance of these double binds, they are often clueless as to their existence and to how pernicious they are.
Four Destructive Patterns of Bias
In their book What Works for Women at Work, Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey bring a research perspective to learning more about the wicked problems of working women. In their interviews with 67 women “at the top of their fields” in business, medicine, academia, government, and the legal profession, they discovered “four basic patterns of bias” that permeated the working lives of these women:
- Prove-It-Again: Women are forced to prove their competence over and over, whereas men are given the benefit of the doubt.
- The Tightrope: Women risk being written off as “too feminine” when they’re agreeable and “too masculine” when they’re aggressive.
- The Maternal Wall: Women with children are routinely pushed to the margins of the professional world.
- The Tug of War: All of the above pressures on women often lead them to judge each other on the right way to be a woman.
Two observations seem relevant: First, these dilemmas are reserved for women; Men are for the most part exempt, though they have their own different issues to deal with. And second, being in the middle of an organizational life full of such complications and contradictions often seems like being in the middle of The Swamp!
What Can Be Done?
Are things improving? Yes. There is impressive evidence from many sources that women (and some men) are increasingly refusing to buy into these destructive patterns and are making energetic efforts to bring about change. But changing deeply embedded cultural patterns is a huge and long-term challenge. These cultural and societal double binds and biases will not disappear quickly. What is required is what social scientists call Robust Action: Vigorous, focused and sustained actions directed at specific problems.
Both Jamison and Willams and Dempsey include in their books a series of specific recommendations for Robust Action.
Here are Jamison’s suggestions: Reframing, Recovering, Reclaiming Language, Recasting, Equal Opportunity Alternatives, Rewriting, and Confounding the Stereotypes. Each of these recommendations includes a series of approaches and actions that can be taken in order to reduce the power of the double bind. At the same time, several of her recommendations are themselves wicked problems, ill-defined, complicated and difficult in their own right requiring specific knowledge and skills to put into practice. In this world of complexity and controversy, there is no quick fix or easy out.
The last chapter in Williams and Dempsy’s book is titled The Science of Savvy in 20 Lessons, and includes twenty suggestions for addressing these problems. These are a mixture of specific suggestions - #6 Just say no to office housework like taking notes – and generalized admonitions – #8 Don’t serve your anger hot.
Some make imminent good sense: #5 Form a posse that includes both men and women and celebrates each other’s accomplishments in a good citizen way.
Others are less helpful because they are phrased in terms that offer no clue how one should go about carrying then out. For example,#14 is Bias against women fuels conflict among women. Stop judging other women on the right way to be a woman, and keep in mind that we’re all fighting our own battles. How one is to determine whether she holds biases against women, and how is one to learn whether or not she is “judging other women”unfairly? And with #8, Don’t serve your anger hot, how is a woman to know if her anger is too hot, too cold, or just right?
The last recommendation in Williams and Dempsey’s book is:
#20 Don’t waste your energy trying to work through an unworkable situation, or your time in a job where your talents are not valued. If you’re facing a poisonous working environment or a dead-end job, and there’s nothing new to learn, vote with your feet and find a job where you can shine.
The author’s advice seems clear: If it’s not working, move on. But taking such advice undiluted could be a serious mistake. Things are always more complicated that they suggest:
- Most situations are “unworkable” at one time or another.
- People often find themselves in a job where their talents are not always valued.
- There is always something new to learn, not the least of which is how to turn “unworkable” into “workable.”
- Voting with one’s feet is one way out. Yet if it is a frequent occurrence, it will be seen as evidence that the person lacks commitment and “grit.”
- Given the economic circumstances it’s not always easy to find another position, much less a more satisfying one.
- Even after moving on, many women (and men as well) discover that things are no better and are, at times, even worse.
There are no ideal places to work! Every workplace has its own set of problems that must be addressed.
What women are facing at work – and will always face – are a series of wicked problems. If she decides to “vote with her feet” and move on, what she will discover are new problems, some of which will be even more “wicked” than the ones she left behind. ”Poisonous working environments” do not improve by themselves! They are only made better by consistent, thoughtful, patient, and skillful attention and work.
Another option is to “Stay At the Table” and deal directly with the problems themselves. People who add the most value to their jobs, their families, their relationships and their societies are those who meet difficult problems head on, and develop the knowledge and the skills to make things better, not only for themselves but for others as well. In the long run, these people are seen by organizations and society as exceedingly valuable and even, at times, irreplaceable. In order to be included in this group, one must stay and see it through.
Do you find yourself in a difficult, unpleasant, and “unworkable” situation, and where your talents are not valued? Welcome to the most inclusive club in the world. We’ve all been there at one time or another. Rather than “voting with your feet,” how about forming a posse and going after the most serious of the many problems that are on the agenda, especially one that no one else seems interested in confronting? Do it well, stay with it, and you may be amazed at how things can improve.