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Oct. 14, 2019

Amy Bonomi: The double bind facing women

Amy Bonomi is a professor and former chair in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. She is director of MSU Extension's Children and Youth Institute and co-administrator of the Women's Leadership Institute at MSU.

In the dim light of morning, I stare at my laptop screen pondering whether to include one exclamation point or two. I’m responding to an email from a chronically ornery faculty member. Usually adept at getting through my inbox before 9 a.m., my fingers hover, frozen, above the keyboard.

I try “thank you” with one exclamation point. No. Then two exclamation points. Hmmm.
Would one exclamation point convey enough enthusiasm? Would two be over the top? Would including any exclamation point seem frivolous?

I sip my coffee. Prune two curling leaves on the poinsettia. Ponder why there’s no option of one and a half exclamation points!

Do men worry about exclamation points?

Saved by my 9 a.m. meeting, I close my laptop and revisit the email later.

Fortunately, over the course of my role as a department chair from 2013-2018, I settled into realizing I did not need to include that ratty exclamation point when sending professional messages — even if, as a woman department chair, leaving it out meant I would be perceived by some as “unenthusiastic” and “not supportive.”

Yet, the exclamation point decision is part of a larger gender-related “tax” that cost me time and agency. The time many women leaders spend on similar decisions is part of a larger “double bind” they are forced to navigate daily.

Catalyst’s (2007) landmark study on the “double bind” facing women leaders outlines three aspects of gender-related bias. First, women leaders who display decisive, authoritative qualities (traditionally male traits) are deemed “not nice,” whereas women with communal qualities are deemed “too nice.” Second, women leaders must do twice the work to get half the credit as men. Third, women leaders are typically deemed competent or liked, but rarely both.

Putting this all together, a woman leader who doesn’t include an exclamation point after “thank you” in an email might be perceived as “not enthusiastic enough” (i.e., she’s not being “enough of a cheerleader” for others) and possibly “unlikable.” On the other hand, she might not be taken seriously (she’s “too enthusiastic, too much of a cheerleader”). I suppose it depends, in part, on the content of other parts of the email and the characteristics of the recipient. But, you get my point — women leaders face a dilemma, a tax, over their every action.

Women Leading Change: Navigating the Double Bind

The “double bind” was the subject of a presentation I made a national conference in Atlanta in May 2018. I was describing being recruited from one Big Ten university to another to lead a department through large-scale change. I didn’t realize until I arrived on campus the extent of the changes needed in the department and the resistance that would follow while trying to enact the change. One of our star faculty members routinely likened the resistance directed at me to that faced by Barack Obama. And that included tantrums from some faculty over exclamation points!

During my presentation, Callie Rennison, a professor at the University of Colorado, identified with my experience in her former roles as Title IX director and associate dean and piped, “We need to write a book!” I thought Callie was just being emphatic in the moment, but when I got back to my laptop, there was an email suggesting times for a meeting. And the rest was history!

Over the next 12 months, Callie and I culled the experiences, strength and wisdom of 23 diverse academic leaders from across the United States — presidents, provosts, deans, department chairs and emerging leaders — on consequential issues they faced in their leadership journeys — the double bind; glass ceilings (under-representation of women in the highest leadership positions, Federal Glass Ceiling Commission, 2005); glass cliffs (tendency for women to be appointed when organizations are struggling and their risk of failure is high, Ryan & Haslam, 2005); glass slippers (Bonomi in Sims, 2019); leading strategically; leading through resistance; negotiation and backlash; networking; mentoring; work life balance; and knowing when it is time to move on, up or out of leadership.

The result was the first book of its kind, "Women Leading Change in Academia: Breaking the Glass Ceiling, Cliff and Slipper" (Rennison & Bonomi, 2019).

Women contributors wrote about institutional power structures, biases and discrimination to underscore the role that these continue to play in disadvantaging women in being considered for — and being evaluated once occupying — key academic leadership positions, and to provide the foundation from which women nonetheless rise and persist as powerful leaders and change agents in their departments, colleges and universities.

True leadership not only incites change, but also inspires. The experiences of women writing for "Women Leading Change" does just that. A group of women staff members at Michigan State University have started the “cliff dwellers” networking group to support each other as they lead their units through hard change.

The Future of Exclamation Point Taxes?!

I didn’t realize the strength and solidarity that would emanate from convening the perspectives of these powerful women leaders — from the highest levels of leadership to emerging leaders. While I had made my decision — years ago — about whether or not to use exclamation points, it helped to learn that I was not the only woman leader navigating (and successfully buffering against) this time-consuming tax and “double bind.”