Channeling your Inner Olivia Pope (part 3): Women leaders and the double bind

Women in leadership face unique challenges in light of gender stereotypes, and these issues are further complicated if you are a woman of color

In my first two installments of this series, I used the television program “Scandal” as a springboard to share my perspective and suggest best practices for in-house and outside counsel whose company or client finds itself in the middle of a scandal. The television series is, after all, based upon a real person—Judy Smith—who is the founder and president of one of the leading strategic and crisis communication firms in the world. 

Smith is a highly sought after counselor and advisor for Fortune 500 companies, entertainment and sports figures, and heads of state. She is a successful, fearless leader in her field and enjoys a wide-ranging and trailblazing career. This third and final installment will utilize “Scandal” to address the unique challenges for women in leadership in light of gender stereotypes and the overlay of race, ethnicity and culture.   

Truth be told, I think the real reason I love watching “Scandal” every week and why I love the idea of channeling your inner Olivia Pope is that I see a black woman who, in her professional life, appears to transcend the “double bind” that plagues both white women and women of color in leadership. The double bind has been defined by a number of researchers, professors, and commentators. Robin J. Ely, a professor at Harvard Business School, has described it as the “well-documented phenomenon whereby women leaders face a trade-off between being liked and being seen as competent.”

In the Catalyst series examining barriers to women’s advancement, one of the conclusions drawn is that women leaders are perceived as competent or liked, but rarely both.  When women behave in ways that are traditionally valued in men – confident, assertive, and take charge—it is sometimes interpreted as arrogant, pushy, and aggressive. The terms pushy, bossy, ambitious and “difficult to work with” are at times utilized to describe women in leadership. The last term was allegedly used to describe ousted New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson along with polarizing and brusque.  

Gender, race, and leadership are usually handled very subtly on “Scandal.” How many of you remember the scene in season 2, episode 16 in which Olivia Pope is retained by a woman CEO (married with two children) who is accused of having an affair with the President’s Supreme Court nominee?  When Olivia and Abby arrive at the client’s home, the client looks at Abby and assumes she is “The revered fixer Olivia Pope,” the subtext being that she assumed Olivia would be Caucasian and not black because of her accomplishments and accolades. There are other times when all subtlety is tossed aside, such as the beginning of season 3 where Papa Pope is lecturing Olivia about her affair with Fitz and tells her, “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have”—an oft-quoted statement within the black community about the impact of race on advancement and achievement. Issues of gender were addressed in Shonda Rhimes’ storyline involving Congresswoman Josie Marcus’ bid to be the first woman presidential nominee. Remember the back and forth between Congresswoman Josie Marcus and interviewer James Novak, in which the Congresswoman tackles the stereotypes regarding women in politics after seeing the “fake commercial” done by the OPA team: 

“It’s not just Governor Reston speaking in code about gender; it’s everyone, yourself included…. [Y]ou call[] me a ‘real-life Cinderella story’. It reminds people that I’m a woman without using the word. For you, it’s an angle, I get that, and I’m sure you think it’s innocuous, but guess what, it’s not….You’re promoting stereotypes, James. You’re advancing this idea that women are weaker than men. You’re playing right into the hands of Reston and into the hands of every other imbecile who thinks a woman isn’t fit to be commander-in-chief.”

I don’t recall seeing any scenes on “Scandal” in which company executives are debating Olivia Pope’s credentials, discussing whether she is competent to handle the crisis, or deciding to select a different crisis management consultant and not her because, while she is quite competent and excellent at what she does, she is “pushy” or “bossy” or “difficult to work with.” And, Rhimes should not feel compelled to address these issues on the show or force the fictional protagonist to struggle with the double bind. Bottom line is that “Scandal” is pure entertainment and fun, even though it goes further than many shows by including storylines addressing issues of race and gender. 

Women in leadership face unique challenges in light of gender stereotypes, and these issues are further complicated if you are a woman of color, where there are variations in stereotypes among races and ethnicities, or if you are a gay woman. The very attributes that enable women to rise to the top of their profession—to become an Olivia Pope—can at times undermine their success because they are labeled “unlikeable,” and let’s face it, people hire people they like. For women in leadership, where likeability and competence can often be perceived as incompatible, what can you do to channel your inner Olivia Pope and either keep your leadership position or be hired for a leadership position?  

Some practical advice that was given to me:

1) Focus on developing individual relationships so that people know you both personally and professionally and invest time, energy, and effort in deepening those individual personal connections;

2) Be self-aware—about your strengths and weaknesses, but don’t become so worried about what others perceive about you that you are distracted from doing your work effectively; and

3) Understand that, no matter what you do, some people will not like you, you can’t control their perceptions or reactions to you, and resolve to be at peace with that. 

Because of the double bind, there is often a double (and sometimes triple and quadruple) burden on women leaders to demonstrate competence, get excellent results, and remain likeable and non-threatening. Obtaining the desired outcome and achieving the objectives of the engagement should remain your focus, but nurturing relationships and building goodwill are equally important and necessary for success.

At Harvard Law School’s Celebration 60, Professor Robin J. Ely stated that leadership is enabling other people to bring their best selves forward in service of a meaningful goal. She also recommended that as a leader, you ask yourself some questions: What is necessary to get the work done? What kind of support do my subordinates, coworkers, and superiors need? She advocates that you answer those questions and be responsive to those needs in order to accomplish the collective goal. Professor Ely’s key takeaway for the women at Celebration 60 was that effective leaders are those who lead with purpose.

There are some men and women who, well aware of the double bind, use it against women leaders and play into it to advance themselves—playing into the notion that while a man and woman are equally competent and effective, the man is easier to work with than the woman or one woman is more likeable than another woman because she acts in a manner consistent with traditional gender stereotypes.  

In other instances, the lack of support by some men and women is unintentional. Gender roles and stereotypes (with racial and ethnic overlays) are a part of our institutional history, and our expectations of how a woman should conduct herself—warm, nurturing, and giving—are inconsistent with our expectations of a leader—decisive, focused, and firm. These cultural paradigms exist on a subconscious level in all of us and can affect our perceptions and actions if left unchecked. There is a high degree of self-awareness, mindfulness, and commitment needed to counteract these unconscious and unintentional behaviors.

As a practical matter, what can be done? One step is to redefine what it means to lead and the attributes of a leader. Ely has provided a potential definition for leadership described above. Another step is to be aware of the issue and act upon that increased awareness.

Question your assumptions and impressions, encourage others to do the same, and make a commitment to not follow the path of least resistance. Ask yourself, would I have a negative impression of this person or assume the worst about this person if “she” were a “he” and then ask yourself why or why not? Have you worked with a “he” who exhibited similar attributes as the “she” and how did you and your colleagues respond to him?  If you responded differently to the “she,” ask yourself why? A third step is to use your sphere of influence to actively recruit, hire, advance and promote talented women leaders not because they are women, but because they are excellent at what they do. Our presence in higher numbers “at the table” helps to shift long-standing cultural paradigms—slowly, but surely.  

The good news is that in the “real world”—as on “Scandal”—there are people who, like Abby, “would gladly follow … [Olivia] over a cliff” or like Huck, would do anything to protect Olivia – and their support is genuine and their loyalty sincere. They are men, women, minority, non-minority, gay, straight, old, and young, and they are committed to doing the right thing. Perhaps sooner rather than later, life will imitate art in the sense that in the real world, we too, like Olivia Pope, can transcend the double bind and focus on being successful gladiators, maintaining authenticity, and achieving the collective goal when our client or company is facing a scandal.            

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Cari K. Dawson

Cari K. Dawson is the chair of the Class Action Practice Team at Alston & Bird LLP. She concentrates her practice on complex litigation matters,...

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