And what difference does it make?
After reading my post about my (male) boss’ kind concern for my work-life balance, a colleague told me she wished her (female) supervisor shared that concern. That echoes anecdotes I’ve heard from lots of different arenas – workplaces, classrooms, courtrooms, political offices, and even families – where people feel female leaders are more demanding. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll found that, when given a choice, Americans prefer a male boss over a female boss by 35% to 23%, and women were more likely to prefer a male boss than men (40% of women said they would rather work for a man, compared to 29% of men, with half of men but only a third of women having no preference). This is worrisome because the widespread belief (echoed in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In) is that the best way to help working women is to have more women in positions of power. But there certainly won’t be more women bosses if people don’t want to work for them.
What the Gallup poll failed to ask was “Why do most Americans still prefer to work for a man?” Study after study has shown that women can be better leaders than men because they are more emotionally intelligent, think about risk differently, and tend to collect more information before making a decision. After the 2008 financial crisis, experts suggested the meltdown might have been less severe if more women were in positions of power in the big Wall Street firms. A 2007 report by a non-profit, Catalyst, found that Fortune 500 companies with the highest representation of women board directors attained significantly higher financial performance, on average and across a range of measures, than those with the lowest representation of women on their boards. So why are women bosses so unpopular?
Stereotypes of the aggressive, bossy, micro-managing female boss persists, and the actions of a woman leader are often interpreted through this lens, as author B.J. Gallagher demonstrates in her list, “How to Tell a Male Boss From a Female Boss.” For example, if a male boss makes a quick decision, he’s seen as a man of action, but if a female boss does the same, she’s perceived as impulsive. If, by contrast, a man delays, he is thinking before he acts, but a woman is accused of second-guessing herself. It’s a no-win situation for women leaders, which makes it hard to get ahead (just ask Hillary Clinton!). As Margaret Atwood pithily pointed out, “[w]e still think of a powerful man as a born leader and a powerful woman as an anomaly.”
A much-discussed Pantene commercial skillfully illustrated the leadership double standard in less than a minute. The ad ends by urging women: “Don’t let labels hold you back. Be strong and shine.” Most professional women will agree that that is easier said than done. But why?
In her article, “When Good Women Make Bad Bosses,” Suzy Welch posits some reasons women may struggle in leadership roles. She suggests that many women attain positions of leadership through personal achievement coupled with a bit of self-promotion to get their accomplishments noticed. As a boss, however, a woman’s success requires her to support and manage her staff. If she continues to “raise her hand first and highest” and come up with the brightest answers to look smart and capable, the boss may lose the respect of her team and will miss out on all they have to offer.
In “Why I’d Rather Work for a Man Than a Woman,” Susan Breslin suggests that male bosses feel less threatened by women so are more likely to help them advance. That makes sense in light of numerous anecdotes about women trying to make other women look bad in the professional sphere, which may help explain why most women would prefer to work for a man. This is a real tragedy; as Madeleine Albright famously declared: “There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women.”
Perhaps because of the unfavorable stereotype of the pushy female boss, many women take a quieter, less aggressive approach to leadership. They rely on relationships, intelligence, and diligence to get results, rather than strength and noise. This can be very effective. As Margaret Thatcher said, “being powerful is like being a lady … if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”
On the other hand, the leaders in an office or organization who make the most noise – speaking up to express opinions, propose new ideas, get a laugh, accept an assignment, frame an issue, etc. – are often perceived (rightly or wrongly) as having the most clout and capacity. Men are, generally speaking (pun intended), more forceful in getting themselves heard. This may create the perception, whether illusion or reality, that male leaders are more influential. For subordinates hoping to get ahead, there is an advantage to working with those who have the most power – they are more likely to be granted its benefits and to be seen as more important by association.
All this being said, while my immediate boss is a man, his supervisor – who manages a division of more than sixty professionals – is a woman. She has two teenaged daughters, a great sense of style, seemingly endless energy, and an uncanny memory. Although most of us would quiver if called into her office because of some problem, any other encounter leaves an impression of respect (she exudes confidence and authority), awe (she knows everything that is going on in the office and handles each mini-crisis with decisive calm), and appreciation (she asks about our kids and seems genuinely concerned with how each of us is doing, both personally and professionally). I feel very fortunate to have such wonderful models of both male and female leadership in my workplace and wouldn’t change a thing.