When It Comes to Female Bosses, Women Can Be Their Own Worst Enemy

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When it comes to attitudes about women in the workplace and having a female boss, Americans have come a long way in the last 60 years — around 40 percent have no preference to the gender of their boss, up from 25 percent in 1953. But for those who have a preference, men are still favored by an 11 point margin, a gap driven by women who don't want a female boss.

According to a poll from Gallup, 40 percent of the women say they prefer a male boss, 27 percent prefer a female one, and 32 percent have no preference. On the other hand, 29 percent of men polled prefer a male boss, 18 percent prefer a female one, and 51 percent had no preference.

The ideal number we all want is 100 percent to say gender doesn't matter. Preference for a female boss is obviously a step up from no one wanting a female boss (in 1953, 66 percent of people polled preferred a male boss), but it's not the ideal. The unavoidable question then becomes: Why don't some women like it when women break the glass ceiling? In fact, there appears to be high demand for articles by women about how terrible it is to work for women. As Elizabeth Spiers wrote of the furious reaction to Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, "Everyone applauds when they shatter that glass ceiling. Then they pick up the shards, and start cutting away.It is often women who perpetuate the dumbest stereotypes about working with women.

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"Bad female boss? She may have Queen Bee Syndrome," reads an article from the Today show from 2011. "She’s the alpha female in the workplace who tries to preserve power at all costs," Robi Ludwig, a woman, explained, trying to diagnose a syndrome that apparently only occurs in women. And the article goes on to try and explain how the "Queen Bee" is a very real and very common thing: 

The Queen Bee boss is the alpha female who tries to preserve her power at all costs. Instead of promoting her younger counterparts, she feels threatened by them, judges them, talks about them and, in many cases, ends up obstructing their attempts to climb the corporate ladder.

This Forbes article, "How To Work For A Female Boss,"  isn't any better. It's by a woman for women, and it explains tips which all involve treating a female supervisor the way you would a hungry alligator. The article reads: 

The bottom line is that it doesn’t really matter if you like your female boss or not, if you think she should have the job or not, if you have a problem with her or not. The only thing you need to do is let her know you know she’s the boss. In the end, it may behoove you to remember that she may not be looking for power at all, but respect.

Shoudn't you let your boss know that you know that he or she is the boss, regardless of gender? Isn't that just boss protocol? 

If you do a bit more searching, you will find there are a plethora of articles about how to work for a female boss that range from how-to guides for men to explaining why female bosses are "a women's worst nightmare."  I tried to search for articles with terms like "How to treat a male boss," or "Bad Male boss," "How to work for a man," and didn't come up with anything close to those articles. 

While those kinds of articles are tips and guides to deal with female, they are actually pretty damaging. They push employees to believe that the reason their boss is bad is something uniquely related to her being a woman. And it also pits women against women and perpetuates the shopworn Mean Girls trope.

Looking at female bosses in television and film, you kinda see similar things. Really successful bosses like Miranda Priestly from the Devil Wears Prada and Katharine Parker from Working Girl, Joan from Mad Men, and Margaret Tate from The Proposal (yes I watched this) are very successful bosses who are pretty terrible, disloyal conniving people (Joan being the least awful among them) and who built their success on being not nice people. On the other side of it, you have goofball bosses like Leslie Knope and Liz Lemon who are really likable people, but are punchlines for being sexless and sad. In other words, finding a boss who's a female that you actually want to be and admire — we came up with Murphy Brown maybe? — is a lot tougher than finding all these examples. 

Gallup explains that there are a lot of factors into why someone would prefer their boss be a man or a woman, and how actually working with a woman can change someone's attitude — meaning that all this stuff people read and all this stuff people are taught don't match up to the actual data of people who work with women. "It is also possible that the experience of working for a female boss affects workers' preferences. If the latter is the case, and if the proportion of U.S. workers who have female bosses increases in the future, the current preference for a male boss in the overall population could dissipate," Gallup explains. So there's hope yet. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.