It’s hard out there for a working woman: Research shows that women make better managers than men, and yet both women and men prefer male bosses to female ones. In this week’s Good@Work column, all-around boss babe Amy Odell—whom you may know as the former editor (AKA HBIC) of and founding blogger of New York magazine’s The Cut—explains how gender bias may be driving a wedge between the letter-writer and her female managers.
Q: “I’ve found that I’ve had a bit better work relationship with male supervisors than female supervisors.”
The ones I have had have been a bit easier to approach, less guarded with sharing information, and also have done a better job of challenging me to grow in my career. Not sure if this is just a personality thing (I have two older brothers), or if there is any data about how women work with men supervisors vs. female ones.
A: “It’s important to figure out if these feelings are the result of bias and if that bias is influencing your experience.”
This is not a personal attack on you, but I can’t help but read that you think your male bosses have been better than your female ones—and that you seem to think gender is at the root of the problem—with a big groan. Again, it’s not personal, we all think and feel things like this (I have, too), but it’s important to figure out if these feelings are the result of bias and if that bias is influencing your experience, or if the men who have managed you have in fact been that much better than the women.
You ask if there’s data on how women work with male and female bosses. Why, yes! Lots! Let’s go over some key studies: Contrary to your personal experience, women bosses are better bosses! According to a Gallup report examining four decades of research, including feedback from 27 million employees, women bosses outperformed their male counterparts when it came to making employees feel committed to and enthusiastic about their jobs. That means women were better at making their subordinates enjoy their work, which is pretty astounding given how much most people hate their work.
Unfortunately, I can’t say this has been great news for women who are or aspire to be managers. Because research also shows that when asked if they prefer a male or female boss, women workers like yourself prefer men. (I should note that men also prefer men.) So, even though women are better at managing, they’re not appreciated for it. Add it to the long list of things—childcare, earning money to support the family, keeping the house clean—women are not nearly as appreciated for as they should be.
According to a Gallup report examining four decades of research, including feedback from 27 million employees, women bosses outperformed their male counterparts when it came to making employees feel committed to and enthusiastic about their jobs.
Most of us are guilty of having these biases, which is one reason why it’s much harder for women to ascend in their workplaces. Being aware of these biases and talking about them is the only way we’ll ever change them.
I’ve been a boss. I know how hard it is. Bosses have to manage down and up, which means there are a lot of people to keep happy in very different ways. It’s impossible to keep all these people happy all the time. Say someone wants a raise, and you think that person deserves it, but your boss gets annoyed every time you ask for more money for your team. Someone is going to be upset with you no matter what you do. A lot of managers are also better at managing one way or the other. Some people are great at managing up, which might explain why they get promotions all the time even though they seem mediocre to you. And some are great at managing down—they have the adoration of their team members, but the higher-ups are never that happy with them. It’s possible your female bosses were better manager-uppers and your male bosses were better manager-downers. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people or didn’t care about you, it just means they’re human and flawed in their own unique ways, even when they try very hard to do their very best.
But it’s also possible you’re harder on women bosses, who often are criticized for things men aren’t. We penalize women supervisors for being aggressive—a trait that helps men get ahead—and we put tons of pressure on women to be “likable” at work, that maddeningly arbitrary combination of looks, attire, and ambition measured by a strong inclination toward acquiescence. We want women leaders to look a certain way, dress a certain way, and strive, but not so much that they challenge those above them or the status quo.
We put tons of pressure on women to be “likable” at work, that maddeningly arbitrary combination of looks, attire, and ambition measured by a strong inclination toward acquiescence.
As a manager, I’ve gotten feedback that seemed directed at my gender rather than how well I performed my job. I was shocked when, at one point in my career, my wardrobe choices received scrutiny. I have been disheartened to hear executives talk about how women manager candidates might “present” to clients and senior leadership—a thinly veiled way of criticizing their outward appearance and, to a lesser degree, their personalities. Never did I hear anyone concerned about how a man might “present” to a room full of important people. Just thinking about it fills me with rage!
Much hay has also been made of women having difficulty working with other women. You may enjoy reading this great, longform exploration of the matter in the Atlantic, which discusses the idea of “queen bees.” The term was coined in the ’70s by University of Michigan researchers who found that this type of woman, who has achieved seniority at her job, works to distance herself from other women when facing gender discrimination, and therefore shows little kinship with them. They don’t necessarily have it out for the other women, but learn that to succeed in their particular workplace, they must do so despite their gender. This may be why we are more likely to view female bosses as “emotional,” “catty,” or “bitchy.” You might work in a place where not that many women are leaders, and you therefore feel an instinctive sense of competition with them.
None of this is your fault. So many complex forces have been working against women’s career advancement for many decades. We may be at their mercy, but that doesn’t mean we have to live with them forever. And that could simply start with giving women leaders the same opportunity as men, and not judging them against a vague yet unreasonably high standard. If the women ahead of us can’t succeed, there’s less hope for us to succeed when it’s our turn.
Have a career question for Amy? Write her at amyodellbooks@.
Want more Good@Work? Here’s what Amy had to say to a woman who lost her boss-babe spark. And here’s now to know—and demand—your worth.