In 1967, Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine asked readers how they “would feel if you got a new boss and ‘he’ was a woman.” In these early days of the Women's Liberation Movement, the magazine’s rhetorical questions didn’t seem particularly strange: “Would you work for her as you would for any other executive? Or would you try to transfer out of that department fast? More and more people in business, men and women alike, will face those questions in years to come.”
So how do men and women “face these questions,” almost 50 years later? If given the choice, Americans still prefer a male boss to a female one, according to a new Gallup poll. To be sure, roughly 40 percent of 2,059 people surveyed reported no gender preference, up from 25 percent in 1953, revealing a sizeable shift in cultural values about women in the workplace. But among those who do profess a preference, the gender gap remains—and ladies are contributing to the yawning rift.
According to the poll, 40 percent of women prefer a man in charge, compared to 27 percent who prefer a female boss. These numbers don’t exactly show a groundswell of women adopting Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” attitude, nor have they budged much over the last decade. In an age when women are used to championing the sisterhood, praising the power of mentoring, and even gunning for a female in the White House, why the aversion to taking orders from other women?
Some suggest that management positions are still associated with traditionally male behaviors. "It’s not surprising that those who don't work for a woman would prefer a male: we expect men to lead. As we get more women in leadership positions, those gender stereotypes will begin to break down,” predicts LeanIn.org’s Rachel Thomas.
Alice Eagly, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, agrees.“The leader stereotype is still masculine, which puts women at a disadvantage. When women do get into those roles and act assertive and take charge there’s backlash.” In other words, women are criticized as much as they are celebrated for breaking the glass ceiling. Take Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who was lauded in the press for taking on the executive position and then excoriated after she banned employees from working remotely. When was the last time a male CEO was so widely pilloried for his “draconian” policies?
Criticism in the media and in the workplace may stem from what Sandberg identifies in Lean In as the “likability gap,” citing data demonstrating positive correlations between success and likability for men and negative correlations between the two for women. “As a man gets better, gets more successful, gets more powerful, gets to the corner office, everyone likes him better, men and women,” she told The New York Times. “As a woman gets more successful, everyone likes her less, men and women.”
As the Wall Street Journal noted recently, the deficit of women in corporate America was once commonly explained as resulting from a “queen bee syndrome,” after three researchers at the University of Michigan “found that women who achieved success in male-dominated environments were at times likely to oppose the rise of other women...largely because the patriarchal culture of work encouraged the few women who rose to the top to become obsessed with maintaining their authority.”
Today, the “queen bee syndrome” has become a stereotype in pop culture—think of all the abusive female boss characters like Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. But the syndrome does indeed exist in real-life work environments. Annabelle, who works at a fashion magazine and labors under a female boss, says she often feels like “it’s just [my boss] against me for something that I have no control over. It’s just this power thing…[The environment] is worse than the all-girl’s school I went to.”
Gallup is optimistic that, as more women climb the corporate ladder, the more likely it will be that both women and men will want to work for them: "It is also possible that the experience of working for a female boss affects workers' preferences…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."
It’s a view shared by experts too: as the culture shifts and more women take on positions of greater power and influence, workplace sexism has abated. “If you look at the long term there’s been a massive change [in attitudes],” says Alice Eagly. But as the latest Gallup poll demonstrates, there remains significant room for improvement. “People wonder, ‘Well, she’s awfully nice but can she take charge [in a managerial role]?’ We can’t expect that because we have Sheryl Sandberg out there telling everyone to “lean in” that the culture just shifts. It doesn’t work like that.”