27 September 2023

Sinking stereotypes: Why are women bosses still getting such a hard time?

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Caroline Overington* says bad bosses come in all shapes and sizes, so why do women leaders so often get a bad rap?

Why do women leaders get a bad rap?

Such a question was once academic: there simply weren’t enough female bosses to have to worry about it.

There still aren’t.

Regrettably, and unfairly — there are some lingering stereotypes.

Female bosses are just the worst!

No, of course that’s not the kind of thing people say in public.

But in private?

The animus toward female leadership is still there, and if you don’t believe it, try this experiment: tell colleagues you are writing about female bosses and whether people want to work for them.

And out will come the tales of woe: she was cold, she was ruthless, she made everyone cry.

Logically we know it has nothing to do with gender.

There are good managers and bad managers.

But when people want to criticise the boss, and she’s a woman, they’ll still reach for gender.

You see the stereotype in popular culture: the magazine editor in the film The Devil Wears Prada is a nightmare, as is the character played by Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl (pictured).

Anecdotally, you hear it, too: The Australian recently published a feature about the reluctance of many women to join a third wave of twenty-first-century feminism.

One reader commented: “Nearly all women I talk to say they prefer to work under male managers and colleagues rather than female.”

That comment is backed by findings in a 2009 study by the Pew group in the US which found that women, as well as men, prefer by some margin to work for male bosses.

Why is this, and what can be done?

Wait a beat.

The founder of Western Sydney Women, Amanda Rose has worked for female bosses; and she’s one herself.

She despairs when gender becomes an issue for employees.

“If you’ve had a bad boss, it isn’t because she’s a woman,” she tells The Deal.

“It comes down to character.”

“If you work for somebody who is threatened by you, male or female, they will be a nightmare.”

“I’ve worked for good strong men, and good strong women, I’ve had men give me opportunities, and I’ve had women say, ‘let’s go for it’.”

“It’s not gender.”

“It’s about leadership.”

“It may also come down to style.”

“We aren’t used to seeing women.”

“Some will be very different from the men we’ve worked for in the past.”

Do women bring a different style to leadership?

A Chief Executive Women (CEW)/Bain report, “What stops women from reaching the top? Confronting the tough issues”, has interesting comments on leadership style.

The report confirms much of what we know: “There are too few women in top leadership positions in Australian companies, and men and women alike are calling for change.”

“This issue has been apparent to many for a long time but getting meaningful movement in the numbers has proven to be tough.”

The report says women and men at senior levels do not have materially different levels of ambition: 74 per cent of women and 76 per cent of men surveyed aspire to leadership roles.

“The bad news is that a wide gap remains between intention and outcome,” the report says.

“And the brutal fact is that the barriers to women’s progression into leadership roles are in large part due to perceptions of a woman’s ability to lead.”

“They work differently, behave differently and are less comfortable promoting their ability.”

One comment, from a survey respondent, was illuminating: “Australia has deeply entrenched and outmoded social attitudes and norms around gender roles at home and work.”

“The concept of ‘mateship’ is too often abused as a proxy for (or to legitimise) the exclusion of women by men — and I say this as a man.”

Marnie Baker, Managing Director of Bendigo and Adelaide Bank firmly believes that “effective leaders cannot and should not be pigeonholed by gender nor any other background”.

“Transparency, authenticity, empathy and adaptability will set you up for success.”

One challenge she has faced that men in similar positions likely have not: how to achieve the work–life balance.

“Early in my career, I was told women could have it all, a successful and rewarding career, a loving partnership and family, and a working environment that encouraged this balance,” Baker says.

“The fact is, we can’t have or do it all, and it is an unfair expectation to place on women, or in fact anyone.”

“Like most things in life, we make compromises and trade-offs.”

Rachel Argaman, Opal Aged Care CEO, leads a large female workforce.

“My first opportunity in business was given to me by a woman when I was an MBA student,” she says.

“My next three bosses were all women, each of whom taught me heaps about leadership, strategy and interpersonal skills, and were inspirational role models.”

Ming Long, Chair of AMP Capital Funds Management, has encountered male and female bosses, and “some women are difficult to deal with. But believe me, so are some men! But because the women are so few in number, they tend to stand out.”

“We have less experience with women in leadership positions.”

“There has been a spotlight on them, because they are rare … If you have nine men in the room, the one woman will stand out, and everything she does will be noticed.”

“People talk about the one experience they had, and attribute that to all women.”

“[People have said,] ‘Ming, we had this feedback from the women we employ, that such-and-such a woman is too aggressive’ and I have said, ‘But can you understand, she needed that to survive the culture that was in place while she was climbing to the top’.”

“I don’t blame women, certainly in the past, certainly not for the ruthlessness that you needed to get to the top.”

“You see it in men.”

“Some women may bring a different style and some people will complain, but remember, different styles is what we want.”

* Caroline Overington is an author and Associate Editor of The Australian.

This article first appeared at www.theaustralian.com.au/business.

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