09 December 2011

Busting Biases - "No one wants to work for a woman boss

By Galia BarHava-Monteith

Blatant bias

A few events recently have conspired to make me realise that real bias against professional women is alive and very well, thank you very much.  I have been invited recently to lectures delivered by the gender and diversity research group in AUT which provided me with an academic insight into the topic.  Our article on the pay gap which featured on the Herald online got some very interesting comments, and in a social occasion I was taken aback to hear views about professional women I thought became extinct back in the Jurassic era.

I must confess that I found the blatant bias I was confronted with quite distressing, and as someone who is always seeking ways to bring things under my influence I proposed to Sarah that we would do what we do best - write! So, the purpose of this series of articles is to tackle prevalent biases we hear about women in general and professional women in particular, and see what the research and actual facts tell us.

I hope you enjoy these articles and I invite you to comment and to suggest further biases we should be busting.

The Bias: Women bosses are the worst, no one wants to work for them!

You 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 tells us?

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

In a recent survey with 142 legal secretaries at larger US based law firms in 2009, 35% preferred working for male partners, 15 percent preferred working for male associates, 3 percent preferred working for female associates, none preferred working for female partners, and 47 percent 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's still likely to be rated as less effective than men, because she's 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

I have recently been collaborating on an academic article with Ann Hutchison, PhD from the university of Auckland.  In her research Ann obtained data 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 are yet more good news for us confident, ambitious, driven and more 'masculine' women.

In a recent 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 8 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 personally found this recent 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 women are extremely self-aware, they acknowledge their more 'masculine' traits, they 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 to self-aware, agentic and wonderful women bosses!

Comments (3)

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  • Tuesday, 13 December 2011, 04:47p.m. by Sarah WS on behalf of a member

    “The following comment by a member was sent to us via email and is reprinted with permission:

    "One of the most common excuses for people failing to act when there is a clear act of hostility toward another human being is ‘ I don’t do confrontation or I don’t do conflict’ . These people are unwilling to challenge bad behaviour in the work place or anywhere else so they are happy to witness but not speak up.
    When we know something is wrong and it needs to be addressed yet we say nothing it becomes ‘Silent Approval’.
    My question then is what is happening within the witness when they see injustice and say nothing – when does their conscience start to ask questions of themselves or do they continue to live in fear. How does this manifest in other areas of their lives and our community.
    Questionable behaviour includes:
    • gossiping and lies about another employee at work
    • denigrating another person's capabilities at work behind their back
    • denigration of other’s personal lives
    • public put downs
    • unwarranted blame/criticism
    • social isolation of employees and within families
    • contempt
    • micro managing to the point where taking a bio break becomes an issue
    • failing to investigate fraud within an organisation because that would mean confronting personalities that are clearly in the wrong or who have failed to ‘act’
    • intimidation
    I have witnessed the effect of this activity on employees and sadly it is present in our community witnessed by the number of children appearing in our newspapers."

  • Tuesday, 13 December 2011, 06:50p.m. by Nicola

    “I would like you to bust the following myth: helping women succeed in the workplace - and the reason why they don't - is all about the kids. It isn't. It can't be. In Germany, 40% of women with higher degrees are child-free, yet you don't see 40% of women achieving on the same level as men. Women peel off the career track for many, many reasons. The relentless focus on having children as the source of disadvantage equates all women with their animal functions (Dorothy Sayers) and overlooks the fact that there are many other factors keeping women back.

  • Tuesday, 27 November 2012, 01:03a.m. by Cristal

    “It's not gender bias. Its because most of these so-called "professional" women come from the privileged class and therefore treat people under them like servants/slaves which is how they are brought up to treat people. Lessons should have been learned from history - about 100 years ago these same group of privileged women were treating the servants extremely badly too. These women do not know how to treat people. I know from whence I speak, I have worked with men for 30 years and never had any problems. The men I have worked with often did things themselves whereas these so-called "professional" women from the privileged class give EVERYTHING to me. Men also work in a very orderly way and everything I was asked to do made sense whereas quite often women are disorderly and I am in effect "cleaning up after their messes" which is why it doesn't seem like I am doing anything. No, this is absolutely not about gender bias. In my case, I don't care what gender, class, nationality, colour, orientation, etc. someone is as long as they TREAT me properly. If A PERSON treats other well, they will be successful. These women are having problems because they don't treat people well.”

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