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Blog Insight & Commentary

The Myth of the Female Boss

Why we can’t see a good leader standing right in front of us

Beth Castle
Managing Editor, InHerSight

Selina Meyer gif

Passive aggressive. Condescending. Micromanaging. You can probably rattle off the stereotypes of bad female bosses without even trying, which is impressive since there are considerably fewer women in leadership positions than there are men. Can you believe the few lady bosses we have up there all manage and lead the exact same way? Amazing.

We’re just kidding, of course—no female boss is the same as another. But your ability to name stereotypes of female bosses, even if you don’t believe them to be true, means the sweeping and damaging generalizations made about working women, especially women in power, still affect how women are perceived at work.

And while it’s true that plenty of people have worked for female managers who exhibited stereotypical traits, the trope of the demanding, overbearing tiger-boss is a misconception. These aren’t characteristics of female bosses. They’re characteristics of bad bosses. Full stop.

That’s why, when you look up “how to work for a female boss,” the advice won’t necessarily help you make a bad situation better or even a good situation great. Anything that assigns personality traits to someone because of their gender denies reality: that managers of all genders can be good, bad, or somewhere in between.

A tired kind of sexism

The fact that female bosses still face an inordinate amount of criticism simply because they’re women does a disservice to those women and to our workplaces, yet there are few efforts to address this tired kind of sexism.

In fact, a lot of what the media tells us about female bosses perpetuates these long-held stereotypes. Coverage of women politicians and celebrities as well as movies and television reinforce the idea that women in power have to “soften” or “feminize” their personalities in order to be successful and likable—even though research tells us the opposite, that stereotypically “masculine” traits of assertiveness, strength, and sharpness are recognized as good leadership qualities.

These aren’t characteristics of female bosses. They’re characteristics of bad bosses.

Think of Hillary Clinton being chastised for her lack of warmth as a presidential candidate even though, love her or hate her, she had the right background for the job. Or consider Sandra Bullock’s uptight—and qualified—boss character in The Proposal trying a little tenderness with her direct report, played by Ryan Reynolds. Even Miranda Priestly, the female boss in The Devil Wears Prada, who expertly navigated her way to the top of the fashion magazine world, is so demanding that she wreaks havoc on her employees’ personal lives as well as her own.

It’s no wonder Americans say they’d rather work for male bosses than female ones; the messaging we receive time and again paints a less-than-pretty picture of what working for a female boss will be like.

When myth occludes reality

Then there are the “good” traits women in leadership and in the workplace in general are supposed to have, which are possibly even more damaging than negative stereotypes because they’re presented as reasons for giving women a seat at the table we’ve long been excluded from.

According to whatever research made it to a press release this week, women leaders are more empathetic, more inclusive, more persuasive, better risk-takers, and more likely to thrive in the face of adversity. Forget that women in leadership positions often have multiple degrees and deep knowledge of their industries—we should all promote more women because they’re highly adaptable, ask good questions, and know when to ignore bad advice.

We can safely say that’s not true (though, admittedly, a “bad advice radar” would be incredibly marketable). Women are no more likely to be persuasive or adaptable than men are. Our questions can be equally as thoughtful or thoughtless as leaders of any gender. In other words, womanhood doesn’t immediately translate to emotional resilience or conscientiousness. These are learned traits that managers of all genders can bring into the office.

Women are ascribed those gendered traits only because they’re either stereotypically feminine or make up for negative traits men are supposed to have. 

The truth is, none of this male-verses-female chatter matters if you have a boss who is a good leader—and it’s highly likely that if you have a boss you like, they’ll have any number of these traits, regardless of gender. All stereotyping does is distract from what really matters: an individual's qualifications for the job. Whether you’re hiring a woman, promoting a woman, or reporting to a female boss, those resume-driven factors should be how you suss out whether she’s a positive asset for your organization.

Our continued reliance on gendered stereotypes to dictate how we talk about female bosses has two highly destructive effects on our workforce: It keeps us from addressing negative and toxic managing styles because we write them off as gender issues, and it erases the value diverse voices, especially diverse female voices, bring to leadership positions.

If we’re constantly expecting women to either cut or coddle us, then we’ll never see a good leader when she’s right in front of us—someone who can lead effectively, knows her stuff, and has the confidence and authority to command respect.

Should we consider that leader a successful woman? Yes, but not because she’s a woman. That’s important.

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