Female bosses

Bad boss: Miranda Priestly in Devil Wears Prada.

Bad boss: Miranda Priestly in Devil Wears Prada.

My first day as a journalist didn’t start well.  Feeling completely out of my depth, I floundered as the male boss waved me away and a woman snarled something about my short skirt.  Life turned when an editor sat down and helped me write my first news story.  She wasn’t a warm fuzzy best-friend type – she was tough, firm and fabulous.  A few years later, she gave me a hefty raise expressing shock at the discrepancy between my pay and the blokes doing similar work.  I’ve been forever grateful.

I made great girlfriends in that newsroom and twenty years later, some are still important allies and advisors in matters of career and life.  By luck and design, I’m now surrounded by women who encourage and enable me. 

The American Management Association found 95 percent of women felt undermined at some point in their career by other women.  

So when a few people asked me to write about women at work being complete bitches to other women I thought …. no.  It doesn’t happen.  Much.  But of course it does.  Years after my cadetship began I had hope of advancement dashed by a powerful woman I’d somehow made into a formidable foe without even meeting her.

It’s clear that there are some women who fight long and hard to smash the glass ceiling only install a new pane of the bullet proof variety in its place.  It seems these women feel that the top is a precipice too small to share.

In the US these women are labeled ‘Queen Bees’.  The American Management Association found 95 percent of women felt undermined at some point in their career by other women.  Research at two newspaper offices found the least amount of mentoring occurred between female supervisors and female subordinates, and the most between female bosses and male juniors.

Sounds depressing doesn’t it?

But there are nuances in this debate. Researchers in Holland found if a woman works in a female-friendly environment, she’s less likely to behave in such a way.  So, as workplaces become less blokey, the meanies should mellow.

Other studies show it’s about our expectations of gender.  We expect women to be inclusive, compassionate and encouraging.  We expect male bosses to be tough and firm.  I admit I was more hurt and disappointed by the women who campaigned against me than I was in the men who did the same.  Perhaps this partially explains our disappointment with our political boss.  Julia Gillard is a politician who does deals and compromises and lies, just like countless other male leaders have done; but we cane her more viciously because we expect more from her.

Our expectations affect our judgment profoundly.  It seems women actually are more empathetic leaders.  Vodaphone UK surveyed its workers and found female bosses were more likely to be aware of, and sympathetic about the personal problems in the lives of their workers. In their book ‘Through the Labyrinth’ Psychology professors Alice Eagly and Linda Carli write that women are more likely to encourage creative and personal solutions to problems and such styles suit the modern workplace.

The women I know in management are certainly like this.  They agonise over criticising their subordinates and try to help when their personal life is affecting their work. One admits this makes her more intense but she’s also infinitely more humane.

In an ideal and equal world I’d tell friends complaining about their female boss to suck it up.  Feminism means that we shouldn’t have to be nice to each other.  It should be OK for women on top to be as competitive and mean as the blokes.  As Tiny Fey argued when she defended Hillary Clinton, “bitches get stuff done”.

But of course all is not fair in this war.  Love is needed. I do think women need to be helpful and encouraging.   The workplace should reward those at the top who are inclusive, democratic and kind.  Those women who aren’t should consider their behaviour and help their younger sisters up the ladder.  And make room on the ledge. And run their companies.  And run the world.  

On second thoughts, with all that on my plate, I’d probably become a bitch myself. 

11 comments

  • My boss (age 60's) and manager (age 30s) are females. They are both from extreme ends of a rope.
    My boss is an absolute b***h, rude, unprofessional, lazy, bossy, micro manages, undermines, stupid and constantly sabotaging everything the team does and plans because it's not her ideas. She does this spy thing when more than 2 of us congregate to discuss something face to face instead of emailing, she moves near us and pretends to be searching for something while eavesdropping. But my manager is extremely hard working, yet sympathetic, nurturing and understanding. Always making sure we are happy at work and encourages us to speak up if anything is wrong. As soon as she asks of us to do work, we get it done in a drop of a hat and are never afraid of approaching her. We all have so much respect for her (we are not brown nosers...) and absolutely none for our nasty boss.

    Commenter
    slavelady
    Date and time
    March 13, 2012, 12:55PM
    • Sarah, I have worked for both men and women and have decided it doesn't matter the gender of the boss, it matters WHAT sort of boss they are.

      Commenter
      Worker Bee
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 13, 2012, 1:00PM
      • Honestly, as a guy, I've been undermined by both men and women at work, but much, much more so by women.
        I hate to say it, but basically every single problem manager I've had has been a woman. This is not to say every female manager I've had has been bad, far from it.
        But alot of them have been a problem. I find they take things more personally (ie work disagreements, differing points of view when it comes to how to handle proffesional problems), whereas male managers seem to be better at compartmentalising (ie a disagreement about handling a proffesional issue has zero to do with personal like/dislike or any future interactions).
        I find female managers to be a little more cliquey too. They tend to form groups and at times it's like high school, where it becomes some kind of wierd popularity contest. With male managers I just find things are usually easier and more professional.

        And this is bound to offend someone, but it's just the way it's gone for me.

        Commenter
        Jon
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        March 13, 2012, 1:09PM
        • Hi Jon, I think you make some interesting points in a fair manner. Regarding your comment about female managers being cliquey, do you think that it might just be that you notice it more than male managers being cliquey because you're not excluded from the male clique? Cheers

          Commenter
          Sarah
          Date and time
          March 13, 2012, 5:28PM
      • Gender doesn't really make the difference. I have had great and also undermining bosses from both genders.

        Commenter
        girlani
        Location
        Melb
        Date and time
        March 13, 2012, 1:43PM
        • My wife is a GM with one of the big miners. She once asked for some career advice from the most senior female in her division, who recommended my wife shift divisions and take a demotion to make it happen. Talk about trying to sabotage the competition.

          Commenter
          Mr Do-Bee
          Location
          Romper Room
          Date and time
          March 13, 2012, 3:18PM
          • Yay Sarah McDonald is a columnist! I have loved your amazing work from 15 years ago. So glad you have a voice more representative of women, other than those 'other bossy, superficial, self-rightous' female columnists out there.

            Commenter
            Kelly
            Date and time
            March 13, 2012, 4:13PM
            • I'm really enjoying your column Sarah. It really does encourage comments. Congratulations.
              I agree with some others that it doesn't matter what gender the boss is. The culture of the workplace where women have to compete to be promoted is more likely the cause of bad boss behaviour. Up until fairly recently journalism was dominated by swaggering males and I know from women friends' experiences, often legal firms don't encourage nurturing respectful behaviour from anyone.
              Thanks again for your thoughtful column.

              Commenter
              Jo
              Date and time
              March 13, 2012, 4:39PM
              • I agree with Jon. It is politically correct to rationalise away all the perceived differences between male and female bosses but there are differences. Differences I have experienced have been the cliques. I think these cliques somehow benefit the workplace because they promote teamwork but only within the clique. If you are not in it then you are out and that is very isolating and indeed creates stress and in my opinion decreases productivity. It is very high school.

                Also the only people who have scoffed at my need for flexibility in relation to children and childcare have been women. I have never had that problem with male bosses whereas female bosses have been very scary on that one maybe because they have had to sort their own issues out so you better sort yours.

                Maybe where there is a working environment that is more supportive there is a different selective pressure for who is promoted and so the environment selects for more supportive management. Maybe the environment is harder on women and therefore it is the tougher ones that make it. But the differences are there.

                Commenter
                Belinda
                Location
                Melbourne
                Date and time
                March 14, 2012, 7:59AM
                • Sarah, you know what, quite possibly, it is difficult to say from my perspective, but there is definitely that possibility.
                  I suppose it's much easier to notice a clique from the outside than from within.
                  But to be honest, I think there is less focus on personal preference with most male managers I've had (again, just in my experience). What I mean by that is that I've had male managers who I haven't really got along with personally, and the feeling has been mutual. But we've still always been able to put that aside and be both civil and professional in our dealings and it hasn't noticeably affected how efficiently the job is done.
                  I can';t really say the same for some female managers I've had. If we don't click personally (you can't get along with everyone after all), it becomes very difficult to then have a good, functioning work relationship.
                  Basically I've never felt as unfairly treated in work as I have with a couple of female managers in particular. And not for anything related directly to my work or performance in my role.

                  Commenter
                  Jon
                  Location
                  Sydney
                  Date and time
                  March 14, 2012, 12:29PM

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