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.