One of the greatest challenges for women who hope to advance to leadership positions is the double standard that many face. This is known as the double bind; and it is essentially the idea that if a female leader acts in a strong and assertive manner, or exhibits “masculine” traits, she may be judged or seen as abrasive and not well liked. If she acts in a nice, caring, supportive way, or exhibits “feminine” traits, she may not be well respected or seen as a leader. It is these gender stereotypes that lead organizations to underestimate and not utilize women’s leadership talents per a recent catalyst study1. The military is not any different and women are largely underrepresented in leadership positions. While across the armed forces there are over 1.3 million active duty soldiers, the Department of Defense’s demographic report for 2015 shows that women comprise approximately 16% of the active duty force. This is an increase of roughly one percent when compared to the year 2000. Seventeen percent of these women are officers.2 According to an interview by the Washington Post with Major General Marcia Anderson, only seven percent of the top generals and admirals across the armed forces are women.3

At the start of my residency in 2011, our class had four female residents and four males. In the residency’s 30-year history this was the largest female class. At the time of our graduation, there were no active duty female attending physicians. Only one of our classmates was chosen to stay on as teaching faculty, and it was not any of the females. This is not unusual in the military. Let us examine why this might be the case.

I am an U.S. Army physician, and as such, I can only speak about the Army specifically. In general, the Army promotes its soldiers based on merit. While this holds true for physicians, the Medical Corps has a more relaxed promotion approach when compared to enlisted soldiers. Often, putting in the time and meeting the minimum standard will get a physician promoted up to the rank of Major. After Major, it becomes more difficult and not so “automatic”. Therefore, while there are plenty of female physicians in the Army, who are at least Major in rank, the percentage decreases drastically as we look at higher ranking officers. This might be for several reasons. To be fair, one of the reasons might be that female physician-soldiers will leave the military once their commitment is fulfilled, as most physicians do. It is well known that the military has a difficult time with physician retention.4-5 Another very valid reason, however, is that they simply may just not get “picked up” when promotion time comes.

The reality is that as in any male dominated environment, men are rewarded for exhibiting the “masculine” leadership characteristics, such as problem solving, influencing upwards, and delegating, while women are punished if they exhibit the same characteristics. The military fosters an environment where the masculine characteristics are the norm, and this can lead to a tremendous dilemma for women. Occupational stereotypes suggest that women and men are good at different types of work.6 It is often difficult for women to obtain the specific set of qualities sought after by military leaders, as they by default must adapt and change to the culture of the military, instead of exhibiting the unique features that make some women great leaders. Where on the feminine-masculine spectrum should they fall to show appropriate leadership in this environment? That is a difficult question to answer, and one that requires women to find strategies that will work given the gendered views and the unfavorable environment these stereotypes cause.

It is unlikely that systems and organizations are going to change overnight. In order to be seen as an effective leader, certain behaviors must be demonstrated by the individual. The problem is that women and men have been socialized to show these behaviors differently. As such, it is important to educate the military about different leadership styles, communication differences between genders, different personality types and the potential impact of having a diverse leadership team. There ought to be more gender diversity training and more mentoring opportunities for the women in the military.

Military women should not have to self-adapt to obtain a leadership position; they should be able to get ahead with their own unique style. Adaptation leads to a lack of diversity, and this along with the lack of knowledge of different leadership qualities, makes it hard to promote female soldiers to leadership positions.

Military women currently in leadership positions should also be aware of their own stereotypes and should be mindful to not act on them in ways that will limit their subordinate’s potential. They should also be aware of using such stereotypes on themselves. Women leaders should not make generalizations about all women. All of this takes significant effort on a leader’s part.

Female qualities are incongruent in an environment that is male dominated; however, integration of women into the combat jobs could be the beginning of an approach to better understand personality and leadership qualities, the differences in gender and further promote female leadership.

I would like to acknowledge Professor Deborah Streeter from the Department of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell, and Instructor Tracey Simmons also from Cornell for their teachings on how to navigate the double bind

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government


1.     CATALYST Report, 2007. The Double Bind Dilemma for Women in Leadership – Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t. Accessed June 6, 2017.

2.     Department of Defense 2015 Demographics Profile of the Military Community. Accessed June 6, 2017.

3.     McGregor, J. Getting More Women Into Army Leadership. The Washington Post. Accessed June 6, 2017.

4.     Edgar EP. Physician Retention in the Army Medical Department. Accessed 22 May 2017.

5.     Mundell BF. Retention of Military Physicians – The Differential Effects of Practice Opportunities across the Three Services.  RAND Corporation. Accessed 25 May 2017.

6.     CATALYST Report, 2005. Women “Take Care”, Men “Take Charge.” Stereotyping of U.S. Business Leaders Exposed. Accessed June 6, 2017.