Strategy & LeadershipA Paradox Mindset as an Accelerant for Women Leaders

A Paradox Mindset as an Accelerant for Women Leaders

To create successful change, business leaders must project themselves into an unknowable future. In doing so, women leaders must fight the reductive conventions of gender to take on a mindset that channels ambiguity into power. Penny de Valk examines the importance of the paradox mindset for women leaders.

“I believe it is precisely through the presence of opposites and the feelings they occasion that the great man – the bow with great tension – develops.”

Fredrich Nietzsche

Dealing with Duality

A wealth of studies continue to highlight that female leaders are more likely than their male counterparts to face the need to be “warm and nice and communal” (the traits society traditionally expects from women) while also being “competent and tough and agentic” (what society traditionally expects of men – and leaders). This can create what has become known as a ‘double bind’ for women as they exercise their leadership, since those qualities are often seen as conflicting. This double bind is a paradox. And dealing with it can be confusing, exhausting, diminishing and demoralising.

This paradox can get more pronounced as women become more senior, because our gender becomes more salient as our representation gets smaller. This can lead to women being perceived as insufficiently ‘leader-like’ and to the women themselves losing not only their motivation to be leaders, but the confidence in their ability to do so.

Autopilots that Don’t Serve Us Well 

We know that this stereotyping is largely unconscious and a product of our social and cultural programming. These cognitive short-cuts and auto-pilots, that haven’t caught up with our lives, still associate leadership with masculine traits. These biases mean the same behaviours in men and women are not judged in the same way. Instead, male and female leaders and managers can be held to different standards because we all tend to look through our gender lenses.

Just knowing about our auto-pilots/our stereotypes doesn’t make them go away. Nor does simply acknowledging they are unconscious, make it right or fair. We need to be aware of and manage all of our autopilots. For example, when we suffer set-backs we believe are unfair our own auto-pilot can kick in to blame others and to get angry. But if we stay there – as a victim, blaming, finger-pointing and railing –  it simply fuels anger and resentment that eats the energy we need for figuring out hacks, work-arounds and navigation tacks. As well, it provokes defensiveness in the very people we need to engage as allies and advocates. No-one is out there trying to shut down women’s careers, what we need to be doing is to reframe and retool with a paradox mindset.

Changing the System

Most organisations are working on understanding and working against these unconscious biases and stereotypes, designing them out of systems and processes as well managerial behaviours and decision-making. However, I often see individuals and organisations get stuck here. Working hard on the system to glacial effect, year after year disappointed with the lack of step change evidenced by women moving into the executive ranks.

Of course, we need to change the system that locks men and women into gender roles that constrain their personal and professional lives. And we certainly need to be getting on with that. Yet knowing how long systems take to change, if we wait for the playing field to level, talented women will miss out on important opportunities to make a difference as leaders and our organisations will suffer. What will accelerate the shift in these biases is when it becomes more normal for women to be in leadership roles. So, let’s get on with that. And that means working with women on managing these paradoxes.

The Paradox Mindset for Leaders

So how do we help women leaders as individuals to navigate these competing expectations, these paradoxes? How do we make sure they are not paralysed by these either/or dilemmas? ‘Damned if I do, damned if I don’t’ is not a helpful place for anyone to live. What we do with these contradictions as individuals is my interest – dealing with the realpolitik of having women who aspire to leadership progressing on their talent. A paradox mindset is critical to that end, to constructively reframe and retool.

The ‘double bind’ theory evolves neatly into paradox theory. A paradox is an interwoven contradiction. As Professor Marianne Lewis in Exploring Paradox says, paradoxical tensions signify two sides of the same coin. These tensions can be a trigger for change as long as people don’t react defensively to them and become trapped within reinforcing cycles that perpetuate the tension.

According to an HBR article published last year, female leaders are subject to four paradoxes in the workplace. They need to be:

  • Demanding yet caring
  • Authoritative yet participative
  • Advocating for themselves yet serving others
  • Maintaining distance yet being approachable

Of course the expectations around what leadership looks like, which have been millennia in the making, will change. Until they do, women who want to thrive in leadership roles need to find ways to navigate these tensions. It is certainly not about ‘fixing’ them or making them more like men, nor ‘colluding’ with a system where women feel they can’t be themselves.

It is not a Lack of Anything

Women are often told they are not confident enough. They don’t speak up. They don’t ask. The fact is that women do ask and they don’t get. Research shows that their confidence and ambition diminishes the longer they are in organisations. Women are told about the importance of visibility for progression and to get on out there, yet self-promotion is not always viewed as a positive trait in women and they can be penalized for ‘boasting’. Bossy, aggressive and sharp- elbowed, or really nice but too soft and not really up to it. Leaned-in, got pushed back.

It’s a challenging balancing act and a phenomenon many women experience.  Yet it is a dilemma and tension we need to learn to work with and around. It is not about women learning to fit in or learn the ‘rules of the game’ or do some remedial work on their deficits. These approaches simply shut down learning. So what opens up learning?

Moving from a Dilemma Mindset to a Paradox mindset

Knowledge is power. When we know why and how we need to navigate, we move from a dilemma mindset to a paradox mindset. When women in leadership positions shift from a dilemma mindset (“look what’s facing me, it’s either/or, I can’t figure this out”) to a paradox mindset (“there’s a problem here, I’ll refuse a trade-off, I know how to do both/and”), the entire world opens up. And it can be learned.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

F Scott Fitzgerald

You know those who have mastered a paradox mind-set when you see it, women leaders who are comfortable in their own skin, warm, competent, engaging and authoritative. I have never found one who said it came naturally. They all had to bring insight, intention and practice to it.

No Victims

Learning to navigate the labyrinth does not make us victims or make us entitled. Rather, it requires us to really understand what is going on out there in the world of bias and stereotypes, and what is going on in here, in myself. We can all choose how to confront or respond to paradoxes.

As executives today, we have never needed to use our paradox mindset more – bigger goals AND fewer resources; social justice AND economic efficiency; global AND local… So, women working on the paradox they live with as women leaders is brilliant practice, building a leadership muscle that delivers a powerful leadership capability.

Learning how to deploy a paradox mindset, to change our frame of reference, is a huge advantage in an increasingly polarising world. Paradox thinking is not either/or thinking. It’s not a zero-sum game, quite the opposite, it assumes abundance and fuels creativity. It finds duality energising. And it is what every organisation needs now in our complex, contradictory world. It is a particularly powerful tool to address the paradoxical nature of women in leadership, helping to understand, and address, the stubborn lack of movement of women into leadership roles.


Penny de Valk is an internationally experienced Chief Executive and qualified coach who helps women build powerful professional lives. Visit her blog for great advice on how to be your best leadership self. www.pennydevalk.com

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