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Begin with success > Scary truths no one told you > Busting Biases – “No one wants to work for a woman boss”

Busting Biases – “No one wants to work for a woman boss”

By Galia BarHava-Monteith

You’ve heard it before, that women make the worst kind of bosses. They are bitchy, emotional, backstabbing and no one, man OR woman, wants to work for them.  

I’ll start by saying that sure, some women make terrible bosses, just like some men do.  However, let’s get one thing straight. If anyone you know says ALL WOMEN make terrible bosses and NO ONE wants to work for them, then they are displaying considerable gender bias and one might even consider using the ’S’ word when describing them.  

So What does the Research Tell Us?

Bias-busting fact #1:  Some women prefer to work for male bosses

A survey with 142 legal secretaries at larger US based law firms in 2009 revealed that 35% preferred working for male partners, 15% preferred working for male associates, 3% preferred working for female associates, none preferred working for female partners, and 47% had no opinion – that is had no preference.

When trying to explain why not one of the legal secretaries surveyed expressed a preference to work for women, the researcher, Chicago-Kent law professor Felice Batlan, offered the following explanations:

  • That these attitudes might reflect societal expectations about gender roles that it is more ‘natural’ for a woman to serve a man than a woman. The gendered views of the world suggest that men are entitled to women’s help.
  • Men still have the power in law firms, and legal secretaries might want to work for those in power – helping them further their careers.
  • Women lawyers may be more abrupt because of tensions created by conflicts between work and family.

Bias-busting fact #2: Damned if we do and damned if we don’t

If you were to read only one academic article about women and leadership, make it this one: Women and the Labyrinth of Leadership by Alice Eagly and Linda Carli, two seminal researchers in this field whose work we have followed with great interest for many years.

This article traverses pay equality, barriers for promotion, gendered views and bias, child care and demands of family life among many.  Essentially, Eagly and Carli argue that we hold widely-shared conscious and unconscious mental associations (or mental heuristics) about the qualities of leaders, women and men.  Numerous studies have shown that we associate men with more of the traits that demonstrate leadership.

Women, you see, are associated with communal qualities which are about the compassionate treatment of others.  For example, women are seen to hold qualities such as being helpful, friendly, kind, and gentle.  Men on the other hand are associated with agentic qualities, which are about being assertive and in control.  These qualities include, but are not limited to, being aggressive, ambitious, dominant etc.  The key here is that agentic traits are also what most people associate with the characteristics of effective leadership.

So, here’s what we women leaders have to deal with:

  • If we are highly communal, then we are seen as ‘too soft’ and not demonstrating enough of what it takes to be a leader. We don’t meet the expectation of what others think it takes to be a leader regardless of our actual effectiveness. We may not be that effective because the people around us will perceive us as not ‘fitting’ with what they think leaders should look and behave like.
  • But, if we are indeed highly agentic, with a more ‘masculine’ leadership style we are criticised for lacking ‘feminine’ qualities, and so people struggle with us not fitting with their gendered view of the world!

In fact, Anne Cummings, a professor of business administration at the University of Minnesota, found that even when a woman has a more ‘masculine’ leadership style and is working in a masculine environment, she is still likely to be rated as less effective than men because she is acting in a way that is incongruent with her gender role! In other words, damned if you are, and damned if you’re not.

The Good News #1:  Women Managers are More Courageous

In research by Ann Hutchison, PhD from the university of Auckland, data were obtained on 189 New Zealand and Australian executives who were rated by their colleagues and bosses on dimensions of performance and behaviour. 

In a statistically significantly result, colleagues rated women executives as more courageous than their male counterparts.  Women executives in this study were more likely to:

  • Let people know where they stand
  • Give constructive feedback
  • Address performance issues
  • Take negative action where necessary.

Finally, the women in Ann’s study actually performed better than males in the achievement of performance objectives – but this difference was non-significant.

The Good News 2:  Agentic Self-Aware Women

There is more good news for us confident, ambitious, driven, and more ‘masculine’ women.

In a study from Stanford Graduate School of Business, the researchers Olivia O’Neill and Charles O’Reilly found that in the business world, women who are aggressive, assertive, and confident, but who can turn these traits on and off depending on the social circumstances, get more promotions than either men or other women.

Essentially, the research suggests that a ‘must’ for success for women is to consciously and simultaneously present themselves as self-confident and dominant while tempering these qualities with displays of communal characteristics in appropriate circumstances.  

The researchers extensively studied a group of 132 business school graduates over eight years and found that some women high in ‘masculine traits’, defined as aggressiveness, assertiveness, and confidence, were also able to ‘self-monitor’ their behaviour. Explains O’Neill:

“These women were able to be chameleons, to fit into their environment by assessing social situations and adapting their actions accordingly.”

The impact on their careers was significant.  Masculine women who were high self-monitors received 1.5 times more promotions than masculine men, and about twice as many promotions as feminine men, regardless of whether the men were high or low self-monitors. They also received 3 times as many promotions as masculine women who were low self-monitors, affirming that being overly masculine isn’t great for women’s careers.

The researchers also added:

“There is no evidence that ‘acting like a lady’ does anything except make women more well liked. Women with ultra-feminine traits, in fact, are still seen as less competent in traditional managerial settings.”

I found this research the most exciting as it speaks directly to my personal conviction that self-awareness is a key pathway to our success, personally and professionally.  To me, these self-aware women who acknowledge their more ‘masculine’ traits know what impact they have on others around them, and they make the right calls on when it is appropriate to ‘soften’ them.

It might not be fair that we have to do this, but it does offer us a pragmatic, and I think, an authentic, way forward. So here’s to self-aware, agentic and wonderful women bosses!

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