Negative Perceptions of Female Bosses Slowly Dying, Survey Shows

By Kathy Gurchiek Mar 16, 2007
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The negative perception of female bosses dies hard, but gender stereotypes are changing, if a recent Work & Power survey of more than 60,000 people is any indication.

Slightly more than half of the nearly equal number of men and women surveyed said it doesn’t make a difference whether their boss is a man or woman, while nearly one-third (30 percent of men and 37 percent of women) prefer working for a male boss, according to the survey and Elle magazine conducted in January 2007.

A slight overall majority (51 percent) said gender doesn’t make a difference in who is a better leader, while more than one-third (37 percent) overall think men are more effective leaders.

“It seems having over half who claim to be gender neutral on boss preference may be progress,” observed Janet Lever, Ph.D., a professor at California State University in Los Angeles.

Lever helped conceive the survey and specializes in gender studies, leisure studies, applied sociology, and the social consequences of human sexuality and has taught sociology at Yale, Northwestern, UCLA, the University of San Diego, and the University of Southern California.

Female bosses received really good ratings, as high as male bosses, from employees, Lever pointed out in an e-mail to HR News.

It was gratifying, she said, “to see through these numbers that gender stereotypes are just that—many men were good nurturers with good communication skills, many women collaborative, good motivators, professional leaders.”

Distinctions Becoming Blurred

There was strong evidence, she said, that gender distinctions in leadership are becoming blurred.

It’s not stereotypes that are holding women back, though, but a mistrust of women by people who have not had women as bosses, a feeling that comes into play with other minorities as well, she believes.

“The sheer exposure to more women bosses will continue to erode the lingering sentiment,” she said, observing that “if you end up working for several women and they all deviate from the stereotype, then that stereotype gets worn away. … The more experiences you have with that group, the more you know the stereotypes are unfair exaggerations.”

The distrust some have of women as leaders isn’t from a fear that those who are mothers will disrupt the work routine, she said. Only 15 percent of female bosses and 7 percent of male bosses were seen as having a family/work conflict, she noted.

“Some of the preference for men … wasn’t based on women’s higher evaluation of male bosses but rather their sense of security that they could manipulate men better, thus have a sense of control over their job,” Lever said.

Female bosses also think they have to work harder to earn the same respect as men, according to 71 percent of women surveyed, although 64 percent of men disagreed with that sentiment.

“Some men resented that their boss was working so hard,” she said, adding “I assume that has carryover to their expectations about employees working hard, too.”

“Laid back” was a term more often applied to male than female bosses, she also noted, while survey respondents equally applied terms such as “competent” and “professional” to male and female bosses.

“It's great that a majority of people do not have a preference between male and female bosses, but there are still too many who hold very negative attitudes toward female leaders,” said Kim Elsesser, a psychology professor at UCLA who collaborated with Lever on the survey.

She found that while people gave positive reasons for preferring female bosses—good communication, understanding—reasons given for preferring male bosses “were centered around negative attributes of female bosses.

“Women were seen as more emotional, catty, gossipy and moody than men. In addition, female bosses were berated for trying too hard to prove themselves,” Elsesser told HR News in an e-mail.

They also may be viewed differently even if they perform the exact behavior as men, she pointed out—a woman who chews out an employee may be judged as overly emotional while a man is seen as being direct, she suggested.

The Survey Says …

Both men and women tend to prefer having a mentor of the same sex, though, according to 47 percent of men and 39 percent of women. In fact, a Society for Human Resource Management white paper found that there are some barriers to women having a male mentor, such as gender-role expectations and sexual issues.

Women tend to think men at work judge them more on their looks (61 percent) and body/weight (54 percent) than their work ethic (50 percent) and accomplishments (49 percent), the survey found.

Men think women judge them more on their work ethic (43 percent) and accomplishments (40 percent), followed by talent, sense of humor and looks (39 percent, 38 percent and 32 percent, respectively).

Among other online survey results:

  • 41 percent of men and 33 percent of women said men are more likely to be effective leaders; 51 percent of men and women say it doesn’t make a difference.
  • 16 percent of women and 9 percent of men think women are more effective leaders.
  • 39 percent of all respondents think male bosses are more likely than female bosses to be bullies; 40 percent say there is no gender difference.

The online survey was largely restricted to readers, whose average age was 42. Ninety-four percent work full-time, and 44 percent supervise other workers.

Although Fortune 500 companies with the highest percentages of female corporate officers saw on average a 35.1 percent higher return on equity and a 34.0 percent higher return on shareholders than companies with the lowest percentages of female corporate officers, promoting greater gender diversity at the executive level “has essentially ground to a halt,” according to a February 2007 HR Magazine report.

And only four in 10 businesses (38 percent) around the world do not employ any women in a senior management role, according to a Grant Thornton LLP study released March 8, 2007, in conjunction with International Women’s Day.

That figure is unchanged since 2004.

“It is disappointing that the participation of women in senior business management has not increased more dramatically over the last three years,” said April Mackenzie, executive director of public policy for Grant Thornton International, an independently owned and managed accounting and consulting firm.

“It is, however, encouraging to see some of the Asian economies leading the way. North American and European businesses in particular continue to disappoint,” she said in a press release.

“Hopefully we will see this change in coming years as more women play increasingly prominent roles in business and public life such as Indra Nooyi, the new chief executive officer of PepsiCo; Angela Merkel, German chancellor; Margaret Whitman, chief executive and president of eBay; and Anne Lauvergeon, chief executive of France's state-owned nuclear group Areva.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News . ​

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