“What’s She Doing Here?” How to Deal with the Legitimacy Double Bind

Attractive business womanBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

As women advance through their careers, they often face challenges to their legitimacy, or the notion that they didn’t really earn their position. Apparently, some people are incapable of fathoming a world where a woman is competent and capable of earning a job by way of her qualifications. They would rather attribute her success to a quota, or to mere optics, or to one of the other methods women are presumed to employ to make their ways to the top.

It’s not fair, and it’s an issue that doesn’t seem to be going away, either.

It’s also not just an anecdotal issue or one that can be explained away by so-called oversensitivity (yet another term hurled at women to demoralize and delegitimize us). In fact, hard data backs this up. Both Catalyst and McKinsey have uncovered research showing that, while men are hired and promoted based on their perceived potential, women don’t get that benefit. Women have to earn new positions by already having done the work – by proving their performance.

And once a woman has earned her position, the questions don’t stop there. Women have to keep earning that job over and over again. It’s exhausting. It’s one more way way women are inhibited by tiny invisible biases throughout their day.

It can also lead women to question whether they should engage in women’s networks and initiatives – after all, they may reason, if they need that extra help, maybe they really don’t deserve their job. Or, perhaps, they worry, others will feel that way, that if women are perceived to need extra help, then they don’t really deserve those jobs they have fought so hard for.

It’s a double bind many women experience – they want support, but don’t want to be seen as needing support, for fear they may seem they need it. Exhausting.

But that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and go home. It also shouldn’t prevent us from engaging in women’s events and supporting initiatives to help one another. Here are a few ways we can approach challenges on job legitimacy.

Solutions for Legitimacy

Barring widespread culture change, unfortunately, this issue probably won’t be going away overnight. But we can change the way we deal with it – and the way our teams and companies do.

The first step is to encourage people to examine their biases and beliefs around who gets hired and why. All of us need to examine our thoughts and actions here. At an Elevate Her Executive Women’s Forum salon at Dress For Success Worldwide last night, Kristin Hetle, Director of Strategic Partnerships at UN Women, suggested, “We are trapped in our stereotypes. It takes a lot of work to change them. We’re all part of it and we judge ourselves this way.”

Next, companies need to ensure they are creating an even playing field for women – and communicate why they are doing so to the workforce. Dorria Ball, Vice President of Human Resources, US Sales, and Global Diversity for Mondelēz International, explained how her company is working to incentivize culture change, emphasizing the business case for diversity, and then tying managerial bonuses to diversity success. “If they do a good job, they get a bump. If they don’t do a good job, it gets taken away,” she remarked. “Accountability makes it real.”

On an individual level, Ball discussed the importance of self-confidence. “The proof is in what you do. You need to surround yourself in a network of belief.”

Finally, Penny Abeywardena, Head of Girls & Women and Associate Director of Commitments at the Clinton Global Initiative, encouraged women to advocate for one another on this issue. “We all need to be part of the army to educate others.”

By taking a multi-pronged approach – cultural, institutional, and personal – we can challenge the legitimacy double bind. But we will need to work together to do so, and it won’t be easy. It is only by engaging in the networks and initiatives that some women shy away from because of the double bind that we will be able to strategize and advocate on this issue. Only after years of debating the business case within the relatively closed off world of diversity has it begun to gain acceptance in the mainstream corporate space. Whether companies will act on it in large numbers remains to be seen. Hopefully, when people realize that women are good for business, they’ll stop questioning whether they belong there.