No manager can be Mary Poppins, Miranda Priestly, and your mom all wrapped up in one — a reality check for women in charge and the workers who want to love them.
Let’s start with the obvious: There are still relatively few women in power. In a recent poll, a majority of people who said they prefer a male boss had never had a female one. With such a small sample to go on, we look at each woman under a microscope, each gesture indicative of the quality of every single female boss from now until forever. If a man’s a bad boss, it’s because he’s a jerk. But if a woman’s a bad boss? It’s because she’s a woman. The fact that pollsters ask this question seems like part of the problem.
So just because polls show people prefer a male boss doesn’t mean women are actually worse bosses. In the poll, people who did have female bosses preferred them! But it doesn’t really matter if women can be great bosses if we’re saying the opposite so often and so loudly. If women are perceived as lesser bosses, that affects your chances of ever becoming one.Women in leadership roles are held to a near-impossible standard that male bosses, which explores the cultural expectation that women compete with one another. She must be a perfect balance of direct, assertive, and professional as well as supportive, selfless, and fully invested in your wedding plans. “On top of being perfect, women feel they have to act like they’re not trying, If you’re in a leadership role, you’re working really hard. And to follow the script, you have to act like you got lucky or you were in the right place at the right time. The pressure to conceal all that effort while trying to mentor people and be a leader — you’re in this pressure cooker.”
Girls learn early to downplay their own achievements. “Boys grow up in groups; girls grow up in pairs, So much so that by age 6, boys are engaged in group activities 74 percent of the time and girls just 16 percent. It’s okay for boys to advocate, argue, and brag (“Pass the ball! I can make the shot!”), because it’s all in the service of the group. But when girls get together with a best friend, “the goal is to find sameness and equality. I constantly have to anticipate if something will make you uncomfortable.” In that case, bragging and competing aren’t good; they’re friendship killers.
Now bring these fragile, emotion-based relationships to the workplace. By this point, calling attention to their talents is something that women aren’t used to seeing other women do. And what is a boss but a person whose very position is a constant demonstration of her achievements? Women in senior leadership may be punished if they don’t sugarcoat their messages, because some people find a powerful woman intimidating.”
But the catch is that you can’t be too nice, because then you come off as wishy-washy. Instead of “I need you to make some copies,” some women might say, “How about you make those copies?” In meetings, women often write a note or whisper to someone what their plans are before actually speaking. It seems so polite. But workers want clear direction, not vague requests made to maintain an illusion of shared authority.
“Coalitions are fine when others’ input is genuinely needed, and the research says women are great at that, But it’s a problem when women use others’ opinions as a security blanket. At some point, women need to trust themselves. That’s what will make them leaders.”
No one will find the perfect balance … but only because there isn’t one. If you’re a little too direct, if you’re a little too nice, all that is fine, as long as you own it. “At the end of the day, leadership is about each individual being comfortable with the person they are and developing their own style, “When you try to be too nice or you try to be too strong and it’s inauthentic, people see through that and it turns them off.”
Once you figure out who you are at work, you can manage tasks and people even better. If you know you’re a soft touch, you can ask a colleague to play bad cop to your good cop. Or you can work on eliminating speech hedges — excessive apologizing, for instance — that make you sound tentative, If you tend to be brusque, you can run your ideas by someone to help rein you in. But don’t spend too much time worrying about how nice you are. you’re not likely going to change. You have to figure out who you are and put yourself in situations that let you be the best at that.”
Just as quickly as bosses (and recovering bosses) must consider our actions, so too must employees look in the mirror. Because many of those people complaining about women bosses? They’re women. In studies, women are even more likely than men to say they prefer a male boss.
Younger women can be pretty tough on their elders in the office, They have often had more training in management at a younger age, she says, and can be more critical of women above them who perhaps weren’t taught such skills on their way up. Criticism can also be a way of coping with the bias that studies show still exists in the office. When you complain, particularly to male colleagues, you are saying, “Not to worry. I may be a woman, but I’m not one of them.”
Ask yourself: Do you really hate your boss because she’s a woman? Or do you hate your boss because bosses in general are people with power over your life? Do you maybe hate your boss because she didn’t let you plan your wedding at the office?
Ask if you’re holding your female boss to the same standards you’d expect of a man — the same respect for your personal life, the same emotional support, the same number of gold stars when you succeed. Your female boss is expected to do more than her male counterparts; she’s expected to advocate for women too — just look at the backlash when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer declared that no one was allowed to work from home. Your female boss didn’t necessarily have many role models. You are her mentor, too, somehow.
Show leadership by managing up. “One of the most important parts of your job is figuring out that relationship with your boss, people have different styles. If your boss is harsh, that’s a unique type of person and you have to figure it out.” The best advice for employees is the same as it is for bosses. Be who you are. Let your boss be who she is. How is she supposed to accept you before you accept her?
I’ve worked for a lot of women, some of whom were good bosses and some of whom were bad. They were all feeling their way. If they didn’t give me everything I wanted in a boss, it wasn’t because they were women. It’s because they weren’t perfect. Nobody is. But each of us deserves to be judged on our own merits, not as a stand-in for our entire sex. Yes, complain about your woman boss, if she deserves it. Just don’t complain about your boss because she’s a woman.