After seeing Meryl Streep’s always-brilliant performance and her utterly withering glances at her less-than underlings in “The Devil Wears Prada,” I remembered back a few years to an unhappier time in my professional life. The source of my despondency wasn’t entirely a woman to whom I reported, but she played a prominent role. She was a smart, beautiful, icy, duplicitous and manipulative person whom I desperately wanted to please and believe. She proved time and again that she wasn’t trustworthy – or even nice. She was a mean girl. But she was my boss.
If you would have asked me then if I preferred to work for women or men, I would surely have said, “men.”
Gallup released its annual Work and Education Survey poll results in November that found:
“If Americans were taking a new job and had their choice of a boss, they would prefer a male boss over a female boss by 35% to 23%, although four in 10 would have no preference. These attitudes have not changed much in recent years, but when Gallup first asked this question in 1953, 66% of Americans preferred a male boss, while just 5% preferred working for a woman.”
Given the enormous inroads I feel women have made in the workplace over the last few decades – and certainly the legal industry – I found the following statistic the most startling:
“The proportion of Americans who prefer a female boss has increased by 18 percentage points over the past six decades . . .”
Wait – only 18 percentage points in six decades??!! As a woman who employs several highly diverse women and men, I hope that I would skew these results to a much higher percentage.
Here are some other findings – key differences in preferences for male or female bosses across subgroups:
- “Both men and women prefer a male boss. More than half of men say the gender of their boss makes no difference, but those who have a preference favor a male boss by an 11-point margin. Women are more likely than men to have a preference, with higher proportions expressing preferences for each gender of boss, though women choose a male over a female boss by a 13-point margin.
- There are some differences by age, with Americans between 35 and 54 the least likely to prefer a male boss. Younger Americans are generally not more likely than average, or less likely, to prefer a male boss.
- Political partisanship significantly predicts attitudes toward the gender of one’s boss, with Democrats essentially breaking even in their preferences, while independents and Republicans prefer a male boss.
- Americans of all education levels prefer a male boss, by margins ranging from seven to 14 percentage points.”
Gallup notes that more women currently work for other women, and the preference of those employees is to continue working for women. They also suggest that among all the workers in the survey, more work for men – so it might be natural to assume that they would like to continue working for men.
Joan C. Williams, a Harvard Business Review blogger, when reporting about this survey wrote:
. . . [Women] “may have experienced workplaces where gender bias pits women against other women, a pattern The New Girls’ Network calls the “Tug of War.” An important 2010 study of legal secretaries by law professor Felice Batlan illustrates this dynamic, as does my own research. Batlan surveyed 142 legal secretaries and found that not one preferred to work for a woman partner (although, importantly, 47% expressed no preference).
Why did many secretaries prefer male bosses? Simple: they aren’t dummies. In most law firms, most people who hold power are men. Women stall out about 10 to 20% of the time in upper-level management in professional fields like business and law, so if you’re aiming to hitch your wagon to a shooting star, men are a better bet. This is one way gender bias pits women against women.
Another is when women stereotype other women. “I just feel that men are more flexible and less emotional than women,” one secretary said, while another described women lawyers as “too emotional and demeaning.” The stereotype that women are too emotional goes back hundreds of years.
But “demeaning”? That’s interesting. Her boss may just be a jerk — some people are — but perhaps she was just busy. While a busy man is busy, a busy woman, all too often, is a bitch. Because high-level jobs are seen as masculine, women need to behave in masculine ways in order to be seen as competent. But if they behave too much like men — watch out.
This no-win situation fuels conflict between women who just want to be one of the guys and those who remain loyal to feminine traditions. “Secretaries are expected to engage in traditionally feminine behavior such as care giving and nurture[ing], where[as] women attorneys are supposed to engage in what is stereo-typically more masculine behavior. Given these very different expectations and performances of gender that occur in the same space, the potential for conflict is enormous,” Batlan concludes. Indeed, many professionals find themselves expected to do what Pamela Bettis and Natalie G. Adams, in an unpublished paper, call “nice work”: being attentive and approachable in ways that are often time-consuming and compulsory for women but optional for men.
Conflict also erupts due to Prove-It-Again problems: women managers have to provide more evidence of competence as men in order to be seen as equally competent. This pattern again pits women against their bosses. ‘It would seem as if female associates/partners feel they have something to prove to everyone,; noted one secretary. ‘Females are harder on their female assistants, more detail-oriented, and they have to try harder to prove themselves, so they put that on you,’ said another.”
Joan Williams and her daughter, Rachel Dempsey, have written a book called, “What Works for Women at Work” that will be available January 2014. They interviewed 127 women (more than half are women of color) at the top of their fields in what is called a “ground-breaking study.”
It sounds like a must-read.