The highest glass ceiling: how women directors manage the double bind

Business leaders manage the double bind

Novel research finds women on corporate boards use and subvert gender communication stereotypes

In a rare, cross-industry peek into the inner workings of boards of directors, research from CSU’s College of Business finds that even at the highest levels of corporate America, women must continue to balance expectations of leaders to be competent and authoritative against the expectations of being warm and approachable defined by gender stereotypes.

For women climbing the corporate ladder, the tension between stereotypes of femininity and authority – a struggle known as the double bind – is likely all too familiar. Researchers have identified and documented the double bind facing women who work in masculine environments since the late ’70s, but insight into the world of directors has been difficult to gather, as demands on their time have traditionally posed an obstacle for researchers who hoped to engage with them. After finding a novel route to land these elusive interviews, the management department’s Tiffany Trzebiatowski and her coauthors interviewed more than 40 women serving on boards of publicly traded companies and found that cracking the glass ceiling doesn’t eliminate the double bind.

“Getting to the boardroom is technically above the glass ceiling, so these people broke the glass ceiling in a way,” Trzebiatowski said. “I think we have a lot of notions that after once you get there, everything like this goes away, but I’m finding that that’s not true.”

Tiffany Trzebiatowski, CSU College of Business management department

“Managing the Double Bind: Women Directors’ Participation Tactics in the Gendered Boardroom”
Tiffany Trzebiatowski, Courtney McCluney1, Morela Hernandez2
Organization Science

1 Cornell University
2 University of Michigan, Ford School of Public Policy

Trzebiatowski’s research, “Managing the Double Bind: Women Directors’ Participation Tactics in the Gendered Boardroom,” which will be published in Organization Science, goes farther than merely documenting how female directors face the double bind. Her work also identified communication styles that female directors find most effective in participating in board discussions. These tactics were often different from those used when they were in executive positions.

“A lot of the research before this thought that women keep doing the same things they’ve always done,” Trzebiatowski said. “What we’re seeing in this paper is that these women are still having to address the double bind and having to do it in a slightly different way in accordance with their new director role.”

Effective Communication for Female Directors

Trzebiatowski and her coauthors spent five years interviewing and analyzing responses from women who serve on corporate boards. Researchers discovered that those who felt the most successful in their new role altered their communication tactics as they adapted to the realities of serving as a director. Because boards often meet for just a few days, directors can’t benefit from the daily interaction that builds rapport and trust with colleagues when they served in executive positions. Similarly, board members focus on broad decisions that pull directors out of the comfort of their areas of expertise, forcing them to learn new ways to engage while not appearing incompetent.

Gendered Participation Tactics to Manage the Double Bind

After studying interviews and codifying topics to provide a less subjective analysis of interview content, Trzebiatowski found that female directors participated in board discussion with one of three aims in mind: diversifying and expanding the points of view being discussed; amplifying a perspective based on their professional experience; clarifying, an attempt to gather more information or draw on another board member’s expertise.

Through interview analysis, she was also able to identify six communication tactics directors used, and which set of social norms they upheld, stereotypical warmth-based expectations of women or authoritative, competence-based expectations for leaders. Warmth-based tactics included asking questions and making connections with others to build relationship. Directly asserting an opinion and qualifying an idea with reference to outside research were associated with catering to competency-based expectations. Two other behaviors, waiting and checking with others, were identified and viewed as hybrid actions that addressed both warmth and competence expectations. Trzebiatowski looked at how often women communicated in accordance or opposition with those stereotypes to manage the double bind with a group with whom they likely have few interactions each year.

“We know from other research that the less interactions you have with people, the more likely you are to rely on stereotypes,” she explained. “In this case it would be gender stereotypes. So if I don’t see my female colleagues often, the more likely I would expect them to act in those gender stereotypic ways.”

She found that the most successful board members managed the double bind by using communication tactics relative to what the aim of their conversation was. Directors who wanted to diversify opinion and bring additional information into a discussion were most successful with communication tactics based on warmth and approachability that support traditional gender stereotypes. When expressing and amplifying, tactics associated with authoritative stereotypes, asserting and qualifying, were more successful. And, with clarifying, tactics associated with both warmth and competence were perceived by the participants as most effective.

A Five-Year Project for a New Perspective

Trzebiatowski’s findings aren’t just novel for capturing how female directors’ communication tactics evolve once they were welcomed to the boardroom. They stood out because simply discovering a way to get access to this audience has stymied researchers, and very few studies have been based on interviews with this population because of their subjects’ crowded planners.

“This is a very hard-to-get sample,” Trzebiatowski said. “These are women that are very powerful. They run the top corporations. It is not easy to get access to them, so I had to think of a creative way to do it.”

Rather than approaching directors herself, Trzebiatowski took an indirect approach, reaching out to individual chapter leaders of the Women Corporate Directors Foundation to find those willing to introduce researchers to chapter members. The hour-long interviews, which were presented broadly as helping the research team to understand the experience of women directors, pursued a dual focus of learning about directors’ backgrounds and current board memberships as well as how they participated in board activities.

A woman director and the board

After wrapping up the first round of interviews and refining their process, the researchers asked subjects to email fellow female directors in their contact list. Through this method, which is known as a snowball sample, the research team was able to gather about 60 interviews, though some didn’t meet criteria for this study.

“If you look in the literature, hardly any studies have qualitative interviews with this type of sample,” Trzebiatowski said. “A lot of the studies just assume and try to theorize what these people are thinking, through proxies like the number of women on boards. I do some of these studies, too. We’ll basically look at how the number of women directors predicts this type of firm outcome, and here’s why. We just theorize, but we don’t really talk to the participants themselves until now.”

Further Cracking the Glass Ceiling

Trzebiatowski hopes the new look inside women directors’ experience on corporate boards helps break down gender stereotypes in business’s highest levels. Because the most successful women directors find they must alter how they present themselves to colleagues on the board to be effective, Trzebiatowski says the playing field isn’t yet level for women who serve at the most elite level. Boards should look beyond just getting women into director positions and move toward helping them feel more comfortable when they’re there.

“I think boards should realize there are gendered structures and ways of doing business,” Trzebiatowski said “They maybe have to include more practices and policies to encourage inclusion of different voices and different ways of expressing views so that people can be their authentic selves when they are participating within boards.”

The College of Business at Colorado State University is focused on using business to create a better world.

As an AACSB-accredited business school, the College is among the top five percent of business colleges worldwide, providing programs and career support services to more than 2,500 undergraduate and 1,300 graduate students. Faculty help students across our top-ranked on-campus and online programs develop the knowledge, skills and values to navigate a rapidly evolving business world and address global challenges with sustainable business solutions. Our students are known for their creativity, work ethic and resilience—resulting in an undergraduate job offer and placement rate of over 90% within 90 days of graduation.

The College’s highly ranked programs include its Online MBA, which has been recognized as the No. 1 program in Colorado for five years running by U.S. News and World Report and achieved No. 16 for employability worldwide from QS Quacquarelli Symonds. The College’s Impact MBA is also ranked by Corporate Knights as a Top 20 “Better World MBA” worldwide.