“You know, you’re not a man,” Akio Morita, Sony’s cofounder and former chairman of the board said to one of the firm’s senior female executives over dinner one night.
“Nope, that’s absolutely true,” the woman, a single mother divorced with three children, replied.
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“But you’re not a woman.” “Uh, OK. What am I?” “You’re in a third category.” Right, she’s a woman boss.
It was some two decades ago that Barbara Annis, now of Barbara Annis & Associates, a firm that advises blue-chip companies on gender diversity and inclusiveness, had that conversation with the late “god of Sony.” But not a lot has changed in terms of how we view female leaders.
The real surprise came when the ForbesWoman Facebook community was canvassed: “Would you rather work for a man or a woman?” The majority replied, “A man any day of the week,” to use the words of Stephanie Rovengo.
Are men actually better bosses? Are women doing something wrong?
It’s not just anecdotal that male bosses are perceived to be better at their jobs. “It’s a general cultural phenomenon, the preference for men leaders and bosses,” says Alice Eagly, Ph.D., a social psychology professor at Northwestern University.
In the most recent Gallup data, from 2006, 34% of men preferred a male boss while 10% preferred a female boss, while 40% of women preferred a male boss and 26% preferred a female boss. (The remaining respondents of both genders had no preference.)
One explanation for the across-the-board preference of male leaders may be deeply instilled gender stereotypes held by both men and women. “The cultural model of a leader is masculine,” says Eagly. “Leaders are thought to be people who are dominant and competitive and take charge and are confident. Those kinds of qualities are ascribed to men far more than women. Women are ascribed to be nice. We are, above all, nice.”
As a result, many executive women have adopted male personality traits. This is what Annis, who is chair of the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, did in the early 1980s as she worked her way up the corporate ladder at Sony. “They thought I wasn’t assertive, and so they sent me for assertiveness training for women, called ‘guerrilla war tactics for women in business,'” she says, recalling how they taught to lower and project her voice.
Twenty years later, through her firm’s work, she still notices women distancing themselves from their female identities, just trying to be one of the guys.
But when women take on male characteristics,they are viewed more negatively than a man doing the exact same thing, says Robin Ely, Ph.D., a professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School. She references an experiment where M.B.A. students were asked to evaluate the likability, style, competence and hiring appeal of the main characters in two case studies.
The results were striking. Even though the two case studies were exactly the same except for the gender of the main character, the male character was found to be more likable and more likely to be hired. The woman was considered power hungry, and the more aggressive students perceived her, the more they disliked her. It’s tired but true: Executive women are damned if they act like men, and damned if they don’t.
To complicate things further, female boss-female subordinate relationships can be particularly prickly, especially in firms with few women at the top. In the male-dominated professional service firms Ely has studied female executives universally condemned the most senior women. “They described them as poor role models; they felt no ability to identify with them on the basis of shared gender,” she says.
But in firms with partnerships composed of 15% to 20% women, the women leaders were universally applauded. Ely attributes this phenomenon in part to the stress of being a token. “You’re always going to experience heightened performance pressure. You’re going to be a lot more visible … I think the junior women look up, and [their] expectation is that these women need to be everything.” In addition, female leaders in a male-dominated firm may not be comfortable lobbying for gender equality out of fear it could compromise their own success, she says.
When there are fewer women at the top this communicates to lower-level women that only a small percentage of the opportunity in the firm is available to them, says professor Ella L.J. Edmondson Bell, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. This heightens the competition between women as they all fight for the same few spots.
None of this, though, means women are actually worse bosses than men. And they just might be better. The January 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review looked at how female and male leaders were rated in 360-degree feedback reviews on leadership competencies as defined by Insead’s Global Leadership Center in Fontainebleau Cedex, France. The eight competencies were envisioning, energizing, designing and aligning, rewarding and feedback, team building, outside orientation, tenacity and emotional intelligence. It ends up female leaders were rated higher on every dimension but one. Envisioning is “the ability to recognize new opportunities and trends in the environment and develop a new strategic direction for an enterprise.”
It’s well worth noting that the leadership competencies measured in the study were not traditional masculine-associated traits such as competitiveness, self-confidence and dominance. This could be an example of a new trend. There is some evidence, says Eagly, that the “cultural model of leadership is becoming more androgynous … the old top-down style, command-and-control is no longer as popular.”
The bottom line is women don’t necessarily make worse bosses. It’s just that they are more easily perceived to.