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Blowing the whistle on dragon lady bosses: why men prefer male managers and women do too

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

New research from the Tuck School of Business has shown that 90% of female MBA students prefer a male boss.  A 2009 survey of 2,000 British working women revealed 63% would prefer a male over a female boss.  And a 2008 survey from the University of Toronto highlighted that women working under a sole female supervisor reported more distress and physical stress symptoms than women working under a lone male supervisor.  


So what is going on here?  Are all female bosses dragon ladies?  And if everyone prefers working for a male boss, what does this mean for the sphinxx vision of seeing women equally represented in leadership roles?

While it’s one thing for movies like The Devil Wears Prada and The Proposal  to portray women bosses as dragon ladies, do the movies actually mirror your experience?  Is it history that sets the stereotypical gender of a boss as male, or all other things being equal, do women and men actually prefer men as bosses?

When I received an article from Georgina Napier this week with links to the ForbesWomen views on Male Vs. Female Bosses I have to say I was stunned by some of the comments:   “Women have been evil bosses to me in the past”; “A man any day of the week”; “Female bosses are either b*tches or bimbos”.  Wow.

For my part, I’ve had some spectacularly bad bosses who were men.  I’ve had great bosses that are men too, and a couple of wonderful women bosses who remain mentors to me today.  I haven’t had any dragon lady bosses, thank goodness, but I acknowledge that some people have.  I wonder what your experience is - whether you’re male or female - and if there’s anything women who aspire to leadership roles could learn from it.

I’ve been trying to think back to the men and women bosses I’ve had over the years, and whether there where any discernable differences in their management styles.  One thing that strikes me is that most of the women were more efficient and effective - they were really certainly caring, but also very focused on the business outcomes and had a track record in delivery.  Some of the men on the otherhand were more, well, “fun”.  You know, they were lighthearted, they were the first to round up the team and take us to the pub to celebrate our wins, and apart from the odd crisis at work, they appeared otherwise to have not a care in the world which may have made them seem more approachable.  And one big difference is that all of my male bosses had wives who managed their life away from work.  Many of these wives made a full time job of looking after their home and family and, in turn, my boss... so I wonder if that played a part in how these boss blokes were perceived. And whether the fact that my female bosses didn't have a "wife" made them - out of necessity - that bit more task oriented.

It’s just a sneaking suspicion... and I could be wrong... but I know in my case it’s the stuff away from work that very much drives how my colleagues and staff perceive me.  When the pressure is on away from work, it crosses over to my work life as well.  But maybe that's just me...

If you’re a woman reading this blog, I’d love you to not only share your views, but also to forward it on to your male colleagues and bosses for their opinion.  And blokes: truly, we’re up for it.  Tell us what you think it will take to improve perceptions of women at the top and get involved in the discussion. I'd love to hear from you all on this very important issue.
Darren Ayres commented on 03-Jun-2010 10:02 AM
Hi Jen and thanks for this as it strikes to the Heart of the matter. Most people tend to go for the capillary! As a bloke in a pretty well female industry - recruitment - I have seen the best and worst in both sexes. My honest observation on both, is that those with, or who have experienced, a balanced home life and are in management, make the better Managers - so frankly, ask me to work for a single person who has never had a relationship that extended beyond 3 months and the alarm bells ring. Gay, straight, white, black, boy, girl - if there is or never has been, balance at home, there is no balance at work...and perhaps more relevantly, if nobody can put up with a person for longer than 3 months or they can not compromise to accept anothers challenges, then they may be a blinkered person themselves, which tends to make them unaccepting of others and blind to their own issues...and as we know, human frailty is pretty rampant, so inspiration without judgement gets the best results. How does this relate to women? Well - and this may be up for debate, which I welcome, women may be more empathic which allows them to see the frailties and makes them unwilling to compromise, hence Dragon Lady tags, whereas guys may be a bit less tuned in which allows them to accept 'near enough' My view is that balance is the key - both sides - and that the mad male bosses in their 30's are probably having the same 'clock ticking' issues that women are... SJP moment - have we become a society that has been told we can have everything without compromise and will ultimately be judged by history as those who got nothing? Certainly the demographic time bomb would suggest that. Good debate as ever, Jen
Anonymous commented on 03-Jun-2010 12:25 PM
Personally I've had excellent women supervisors, who have been fun AND motivating, particularly in small organisations. I’ve had wonderful male managers but none encouraged my development in the job. When I conducted my own research for a leadership presentation, I found articles indicating that the qualities listed for good managers are "female" qualities - listening, encouragement, team and skill building and opportunity, for example. However, it is commonly known that to "survive" at an equal level in business, woman have a greater challenge than men, where – at least at higher levels - camaraderie and acceptable "male" behaviour can create cliques and exclusions. In addition, women who enact a level of serious discipline or determination - as a requirement of their supervisory position - are often viewed as nasty, bitchy and “unfeminine”. These conditions will inevitably, have an effect on a woman’s ability to function at their highest capacity and to achieve due respect from colleagues and workers. There is certainly no equality between women (and minorities) and men and our growing societal comfort in accepting this as the status quo over the last few years has disturbed me.
sphinxx commented on 08-Jun-2010 10:14 AM
Thanks for your comments guys, this is a critical issue. My own personal experience makes me all too aware of the very fine line you have to walk as a lone female boss in an organisation, and the intense scrutiny you face. You're not just doing it for you, your whole gender can be dismissed by an unwelcoming male workforce if you make a mistake.

Discussion and support is essential for us to ensure we are exemplary managers, and that we support women as leaders, and don't tolerate poor behaviour of any boss. I've been fielding emails since I published this blog, and the level of discussion has confirmed this is an issue for women (and men) in a huge range of professions.
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