To recognize International Women’s Day (IWD), The Sound sat down with Geraldine Gallacher, CEO of the Executive Coaching Consultancy, to discuss gender, female leadership styles, the Double Bind Dilemma, and why young women early in their careers need to be building strong female support networks. The summary? – Change the System Not the Woman.

This interview is one of a series of perspectives exploring DIBE for The Sound (Diversity, Inclusion, Belonging, Equity).

CHANGE THE SYSTEM NOT THE WOMAN: Check out the teaser, below!

Listen to the whole interview here!


Geraldine Gallacher and The Double Bind Dilemma

Could you tell us a little bit about you? And what got you interested in coaching and particularly coaching women?

A long time ago, I was Head of Management Development at a big retail company and despite putting on endless Management Training courses, senior executives never attended. Back in 1994, the concept of Executive Coaching didn’t exist and the few coaches who did conduct 1:1 sessions were very much a ‘guilty secret’. Chief Executives having a secret ‘paid friend’ to talk to. 

This presented a big opportunity for me. To provide 1:1 coaching that didn’t have to be a guilty secret and was open to a wider array of Senior Executives. In 1995 I set up the Executive Coaching Consultancy to meet this growing need and it was the right place, right time. Our fast growth indicated the clear need for management and leadership training across the board.

A further opportunity presented itself ten years later when one of my female coaches disclosed her reason for leaving her job at an Investment Bank was their failure to handle her maternity leave and return in a better way. She got me thinking. If she and her manager had both had coaching during that period, it’s very likely she wouldn’t have left the organization. And that’s when parental transition coaching was born. 

Almost 10 years on again, we’ve expanded the work we do both in reach (we’re now global) and in scope so that today, in 2023, we are known for helping big and small organizations be more gender diverse and deliver against all that comes with being gender diverse. 


Could you share some of your personal experience of being a strong woman at work?

My first job out of university was as a graduate trainee with The Ford Motor Company. 

I was the only female out of an intake of 40, and I think that was down to the fact I had an ‘agentic’ style (being decisive, being prepared to challenge, having a voice, etc.). 

I was the very opposite of ‘communal’ (being more affiliative, more collaborative, asking questions rather than giving opinions). 

Being dominant and naturally more assertive was hugely prized when I was young; when I didn’t have any power. They were the things I really stood out for.

They were also traits typically associated with men, behaviors expected of men, the innate leadership style of men. 

So for me at the beginning it was fine, I stood out for being agentic, but as I got older I started to recognize the traits I was prized for when I had no power, were traits that were frowned upon as I became more senior.

It became clear that it was much more difficult for me to influence with my assertive behavior. As I became more senior, I started to get penalized for it. 

There’s a point in our careers as women that being agentic goes from being a strength to a weakness. 

You notice it when we get told we’re no longer assertive, we’re bossy. We’re no longer confidently vocal, we just speak too much. We’re no longer opinionated, we’re too dogmatic. 

Your style and how it is perceived, changes depending on what stage you’re at in your career. And that’s very confusing for women. As you go further up an organization what changes is people’s attitudes towards you as a woman.

I realized that over time the professional subconscious has developed a mass cognitive shortcut that leadership is agentic, is a dominant style (which in most people’s minds equals a man). 

So whenever people think ‘Manager’ they auto-correct to think ‘Man’. 

It’s why a lot of mid-level and senior women go around thinking they speak too much, when in actual fact they don’t, it’s just they speak more than you would expect because people have an expectation of the gender difference. 

Sadly, women who have a more communal, caring, and affiliative style, are no more positively perceived as they become more senior. In fact, this communal style makes them even less desirable for leadership roles.

It’s why women are subjected to what we call the Double Bind Dilemma. They’re damned if they do (be agentic) and damned if they don’t.


Can you tell me a bit more about this Double Bind Dilemma?

The ‘double bind dilemma’, probably better known as ‘you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t’, is when women are associated with certain stereotypes, which can be unhelpful when it comes to leadership. There is one stereotype that we all hold quite deeply embedded in our psyches: we associate women with take-care behaviors whereas we associate men with take-charge behaviors.

I don’t think we pop into the world with women being more caring and men taking charge more—no, it’s a result of conditioning. Society has come to expect us to think and act within those stereotypes. So, there’s quite a strong social penalty for women who take- charge and there’s quite a strong social penalty for men who want to participate on the take-care side of things.

When it comes to leadership, we also have a stereotype in our head. We associate leadership with take-charge behaviors, but when a woman has more take-charge behaviors—i.e. she’s more dominant, more assertive—it goes against the grain of the stereotype where a woman is associated with take-care behaviors. Women who do have take-charge behaviors can attract comments like “she’s too feisty or bossy”. Yet, by the same token, when a woman shows quite strong take-care behaviors she is then seen as lacking confidence, dominance, self-assurance, i.e., the take-charge behaviors that a leader needs.

You can see the dilemma for women because they’re damned if they are very assertive and they’re damned if they’re not. It poses the question: what can you do if you are a woman and you’re on the receiving end of this kind of feedback?

I would recommend pointing out the existence of the double-bind dilemma—send your manager an article like this. If you’re a leader, it’s worth thinking: do you make that unconscious association in your head with take-charge behaviors and leadership?

In the last couple of years, we’ve seen more than any time before, most certainly in my lifetime, the need for leaders to be both take-care and take-charge. Thriving companies need people that can do both. It’s very limiting, if you just associate leadership with take-charge behaviors and it’s even more limiting if you then associate women with take-care behaviors and men with take-charge behaviors.

A practical example; if a woman goes into a board meeting and asserts what she wants to do and why without being consultative, she is criticized for being too aggressive and assertive. However, if she comes in with various options she’d like an opinion on, she is then likely to get feedback that she’s not confident enough. She is trapped in this middle ground. The Double Bind dilemma.

[Additional reading on Double Bind Dilemma: Double Bind & Tips for Women ]


Are there any other specific barriers we ought to be recognizing?

A good barrier to talk about is confidence because research shows that particularly with young women, there is no deficit in confidence. Young women have plenty of confidence. It’s as they become more senior they start to experience a lack of it more profoundly. Women talk about imposter syndrome far more than men do. 

I coach as many men as I coach women, probably more men because I’m coaching at the senior end, and men also have imposter syndrome. Whereas women will readily bring it to the table, men feel because of the stereotype they have to be strong and not vulnerable. They feel it’s more difficult to admit to it. 

Another barrier to talk about is that gender behaviors are very much the result of nurture, not nature.

I have a son and a daughter, and by the time they were in their teens, it was clear how much of a difference socializing plays in gender perceptions and stereotypes.

The girls were chatty and very self-deprecating. Being self-deprecating was perceived to be something that made you popular. Whereas the boys all wanted to be good at something. Being the best was how they attained popularity. I don’t think that’s natural at all. I think it is socialized from a very young age; women take care and men take charge.

One important note… the last thing I want to suggest is that it’s up to women to change the system to make things better. We all need to get together to try and change the system, to make it more conducive and amenable to not just women, but underrepresented groups in general. 

At the moment, the way the system is organized attracts and continues to promote people who look very similar, and that does tend to be white men. We need to break that cycle because from an economic imperative, apart from anything else, diversity makes great innovation. 

You simply can’t innovate with a bunch of people thinking exactly the same thing.

This isn’t about ‘fixing women’, it’s about fixing the broken system.


Could you share a little more on the difference between younger women’s level of confidence and how it changes?

In my book, I talk about the bridge with a hole in it. It’s a metaphor for a woman’s career, the hole appearing when she chooses to have children. And it’s not just mothers that experience the hole; it’s all women on the bridge who see what happens to mothers who are searching for a degree of balance in their own work lives.

Rather than going turbocharged for the top, what happens for women around their mid-30s is that they become much less vocal about changing anything because basically, they’re just trying to hang on to the bridge because they’re so busy.

What I find with younger women is before they get to that point when they are filled with the optimism of youth, they are convinced they’re at the vanguard of something that’s going to be changing at speed. 

Now, young women coming into the workplace have more firsts from University, they’ve done so much better academically overall. Not just in humanities but in STEM. And in fields like the law, they are rising to the top of law schools fast and in high number.

To the point that top law firms are now having to consciously recruit young men because young women are leading and of a greater number. Women are over 60% of graduate intake now in law firms.

It’s worth noting young women have developed better communication skills as well, so they come across very well in interviews. They tend to be ticking all the boxes.

But it presents a challenge for them as they start work, as their only experience is that they’ve been extremely successful. And they anticipate it will continue easily so they don’t have any issues with confidence.

All they can see is the future is theirs.

One unfortunate side effect of this is young women really don’t want to join women’s networks. From a commercial point of view you want to be in the room with the people that are making the decisions so that would be a room with men, not just other women.

So they enjoy mixed networking events and they eschew female leadership development programs because they feel it’s not for them. They just want leadership development.

A few have the realization quite early in their careers that perhaps it’s not quite such a level playing field and they absolutely see the need for building strong female networks and seeking training to help them navigate the path to leadership as a woman.

But many don’t see it until they come up against it. 

By which time they’ve eschewed the idea of building female support networks, or taking advantage of female leadership training. Because they’ve not seen the uneven playing field, they see the female-specific training as being actively discriminatory.

Young women early in their careers have a very different view of the gender problem.


Does this change as they get older?

Yes. In the mid-life of many womens’ careers, whether or not they are having children, they experience life being very busy. Even though they see the problem, experience the problem, they don’t have time to be activists. 

And unfortunately, many of the women who make it past the hole in the bridge (to use the metaphor from my book ‘Coaching Women: Changing the System not the Person) are usually naturally agentic, naturally dominant and so they can’t see the problem either.

They didn’t experience the problem, so they don’t see the need to change it.


How is coaching men different from coaching women? 

When I coach, a lot of the time it’s about a person’s style. When you coach individuals, their situation and themselves are complex and unique and so advice is particular to both of those things. 

But for many women, a lot of the coaching is around helping develop a push-and-pull approach. For example, for a very agentic, dominant woman and I will be coaching her to build in some pull into her management style and not be all push.

And similarly for men, it would be the converse, helping them develop their style to include more pull than push. 


What do you think is the biggest mistake leadership makes when it comes to gender inequity?

I think if I could change one thing, it would be people’s mindsets. 

To get them to wake up tomorrow morning with a different mindset. I would educate them about nature versus nurture and that gender is actually a nurture phenomenon, more than a nature phenomenon. Social pressure has taught women they’re supposed to be good at being caring, at taking care of things, all the attributes associated with being a mother. 

Whereas, actually in my case, my husband and I both run our own companies, and despite his company being far bigger than mine, he’s naturally a more caring, thoughtful, detailed person than I am. 

If I could wave a magic wand today, it would be to break the mental mold in their minds that says women should be caring and men should take charge. 

I don’t think it’s inherent in our gender/DNA but we are certainly taught that. There’s simply an underlying cognitive bias towards ‘think manager, think man’. 

Good leadership today is a mixture of ‘taking care and taking charge’. It’s not all about being the great hero leader. That’s just a framework of the past. So out of date. 

The Great Man Theory of Leadership’ has passed and now we need to think in terms of Distributed Leadership and Quiet Leadership as well.


Are you starting to see those themes appear within some organizations?

What gives me hope is young men are coming through with a different set of beliefs. Men who don’t want to be seen just to ‘take charge’, who want to be able to ‘take care of’ as well. Whether it’s raising children or leading a company. We are starting to see this new generation of men coming through that don’t see work as the goal for their lives. They have different values, want to work for companies with purpose and with meaning. Equality is important for them.

So I do see some changes happening, it’s just slower in larger organizations.

With smaller organizations I’m seeing a lot quicker change. I’m seeing more male CEOs who are progressive about what leadership looks like. Recognizing good leadership is about being inclusive, not about being charismatic.

When it comes to gender equity, I’m saddened by Silicon Valley. The ‘bro-culture’ that’s come through. A new form of sexism in the workplace. It saddens me because I had great hopes that the tech world would be a more gender-equal world. As you know, most of the early programmers were all women, and yet now there are so many more men in tech than women and even worse, there are swathes of people thinking women’s minds are not actually suited to STEM. 

If you need proof that this is completely false, just go to India. 

It’s a Western World phenomenon that women are ‘more mentally suited’ to certain subjects. It’s entirely about what we were funneled into, not that we are more or less suited to a subject. The Western world needs to wise up to the fact that this belief that women don’t do ‘maths’ because they can’t is false. We all need to understand computing, to be technically competent, so women should stop being funneled into humanities and arts with men being funneled into STEM.


Outside of pay equality and ensuring representation, what other systemic issues need to be addressed? 

The gender pay gap if you like is an outcome of what’s going on but at a more systemic level. I think organizations need to reframe what leadership potential looks like. 

There is a system that’s much in use in large organizations, called the Nine Box System – it looks at leadership potential and performance. Some 9-Box research was done by Standard & Poor where they looked at 29,000 people that had been rated, they followed their career trajectory, and what they found was women’s leadership potential was seriously underrated. 

Their performance wasn’t correlating with where they had been put in the box. They far out-performed.


Why do you think this is happening?

What we’ve realized is a hell of a lot of women are marked down in terms of their potential because of things such as working part-time (e.g.) four days a week. We know working part-time influences people’s view of leadership potential and so and there are other things like that that create false perceptions. That makes them ‘seem’ less ambitious AND, they don’t seem to self-promote. 

So I think the criteria used for what leadership actually is, is an old-fashioned criteria and without understanding it, a lot of people are unconsciously ticking the box for people that look like themselves.


Is anyone starting to reframe leadership well? 

Some of the Big Four accountancy firms and consultancies are looking at this. They recognize the need, and they’ve been trying for some time to address some of the natural bias in female leadership. Some of these larger organizations have pockets of understanding and excellence. They are also beginning to publish things. It’s just ironic that the bigger organizations are so huge, it’s much harder for them to change their own systems. They have the money to invest in it, to invest in the research to show what needs to change, but it takes a long time. Whereas the smaller companies don’t have the resources to even be thinking about this.

So they’re all moving at such a speed that they’re just falling into some of these traps. 

I can’t point to many superlative examples of good practice just yet. It’s coming in a little at a time.


What’s the critical success factor in your opinion?

One of the critical success factors for this is if an organization or team has an inclusive leader. If he or she believes in this, then it starts to percolate through. But it’s really hard if you’re a bank and you’ve got 250,000 employees across the world. How do you make this happen with all those cultural differences?

I’m not pessimistic. I do think there is recognition that we need more female leadership talent. And the talent is sitting there in the organization – it just happens to look like a lot of overlooked women. 

One senior female leader from an investment bank told me at a recent workshop “Do you know what I see when I look around this room? A lot of overlooked talent.”

I was delighted because that’s exactly what we are campaigning for.


Are there certain things that you find yourself saying or sharing with your female clients that you could share with us?

I draw attention to the Double Bind dilemma I mentioned just now; where as a woman you’re damned if you talk and damned if you’re quiet. I think highlighting that the Double Bind is systemic bias, encouraging women to educate themselves on it, to make sure that they don’t internalize the issue. 

A lot of women internalize this type of feedback (that they either talk too much or they don’t talk enough), and see it as being a weakness. It isn’t. I try to release them from this by highlighting it’s a systemic issue, not a personal one.

That there’s a kink in the system you need to be aware of. 

The second thing is around the issue of confidence. As you know, confidence isn’t an attribute. Confidence is a feeling, and so it’s completely situational. For instance, I often ask women who say that they’ve been given feedback that they’re not confident enough, “would your husband or best friend say you’re not confident? They almost always say, “ Gosh no.”

So it’s just about where you are. If you’re in the minority you’re more heavily scrutinized.

So I get women to think about the relationship between confidence and situations. And I also get them to think about their negative belief cycle. What are you telling yourself here? And let’s rewrite that so that you can reaffirm it’s not your fault. This isn’t your fault. 

That said, I don’t just spend all my time saying “don’t do anything, don’t change”. What I try to ensure I’m doing is helping them understand what they might need to change, and why. To prevent them from being buffeted around by contradictory feedback and by feedback from people that are just accidentally biassed.


Any advice when it comes to feedback and how to manage it?

One of the things I always suggest to women is that they educate themselves about feedback systems. Although when it comes to 360 feedback, it has actually been terrific for women because it isn’t just their manager’s view. It isn’t edited or interpreted by one person.

Stanford did a big piece of research into 360 ratings during the pandemic (15 countries / 60,000 participants across 1,000 companies) and of the 19 leadership characteristics women did better than men in 17 of the 19 characteristics.

The two characteristics, the two leadership traits, women did less well in were Technical and Professional. ‘Professional’ has a very masculine bias built into it.

So you would think it’s obvious, women are better leaders. But then when you examine it further, what you realize is that the women in those leadership positions have been held to the standard of the top 10% of men.

You still have to be twice as good as a man to get into a leadership position. This study proved it is statistically true. 

Like that quote from Ginger Rogers – she and Fred were both amazing dancers, but she did it all in high heels going backwards.

Perhaps unsurprisingly despite women doing better, they all scored themselves low on their 360. Self-ratings by women are consistently lower than self-ratings by men. 

So what do I say to women? Do your research. Let people know about the bias. Look at the Double Bind Dilemma and give a nice little article to the boss, something they might find interesting before going into the appraisal system.


For younger women coming into the workplace, those you describe as being confident, not in need of a female network, is there any advice you would give them?

Join a network. Join female networks. Build a strong female network for yourself. Because there’s evidence that successful, senior, female leaders have very strong female networks.

You need to build that collective because when you’re 25 and all your friends are not leaders, you don’t see the point. But when you’re 35, your female peers will all be in strong positions and you may want to tap into your network. 

Remember, men do it naturally. They’re doing it all the time. Men are doing it naturally and informally and they are also really good at sponsoring other men.

Women have a habit of being very good mentors but not good enough sponsors of other women. There’s something about sponsoring – it feels unfair to women or that it’s having favorites. Whereas, men don’t think twice about it. Women tend to believe in fairness and objectivity when it comes to putting people forward for things. I think women need to change this up a bit and sponsor more.

We need more strong women sponsors now more than ever. There’s a lot of evidence that men feel uncomfortable sponsoring young women because sponsoring means taking them into their network, socializing, etc. Understandably with the ‘me too’ movement, a lot of men are terrified of being in a room with the young women. This is really sad all around because it’s exacerbating the problem and not improving it. 


You have both a son and a daughter. Do you give them different or similar messages as they go into the workplace? 

I give them the same message… that it’s not a level playing field. I was delighted to see my son very vocal when George Floyd was murdered. He wrote to his chief executive saying ‘I really really feel that we should acknowledge this and do something internally’ which the CEO responded to. And my daughter is now specializing in ESG which is all about diversity and inclusion. I think I’ve managed to dragoon them into being activists. They’ve grown up with quite a strong sense of equity.


Finally, as you look to the future and these issues, where’s your passion and energy going?

Into persuading organizations to rethink their ‘High Potential’ programs; the ones where they continue to select people that look like the people at the top. Instead, invest in leadership development for underrepresented groups, the primary one being women, because that’s where the potential is being overlooked.

Written By:
Elizabeth Lockwood

Elizabeth heads our UK team and specialises in helping brands earn attention, build trust and inspire loyalty. A blend of behaviourist and strategist, she’s at her best breaking down complex business, brand and communications challenges and getting people to rally around the right strategy to drive engagement and growth. She's The Sound's expert in all things pet and can often be found nose deep in anything to do with animal behaviour and the human/pet dynamic. She loves to write, run and have afternoon naps in the sun with her oversized Maine Coon Archie.

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