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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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
- 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
The good news #1: Women managers are more courageous
I have recently been collaborating on an academic article with
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.
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
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.
These women were able to be chameleons, to fit into their
environment by assessing social situations and adapting their
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
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!