Gender: Do women really make bad bosses?

Updated September 11, 2016

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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

My friend, Sana*, has a turbulent relationship with her boss: a powerful and competitive business woman, who micromanages her and keeps her busy with trivial tasks using a condescending tone. While Sana shared her tale, a mutual friend stated that Sana’s case is a classic example of female bullying at the workplace. She asserted that women typically undermine and distrust one another at work and harbour grudges. Female supervisors begin controlling their sub-ordinates the minute they feel threatened or overshadowed. She called this behaviour ‘The Corporate Queen Bee Syndrome’.

“The Queen Bee doesn’t like anyone replacing her. She is an alpha female who wants to rule alone. I feel that male bosses are better at managing employees; they are more compatible, empathetic and agreeable as compared to female bosses,” she elaborated.

Our tête-à-tête raised some pertinent questions about gender association with leadership or authoritative role.


Preference may be rooted in stereotypes and personal experiences


According to Gallup surveys conducted between 1953 and 2014, Americans have always preferred a male boss over a female. An analysis done in 2014 showed that 26 per cent men and 39 per cent women wanted a male boss. A huge majority of Americans opted to stay impartial — 58 per cent men and 34 per cent women stayed gender neutral, saying they want a sensible supervisor. The younger generation is slightly more appreciative of female bosses, but prefers a male boss. While American statistics indicate an inclination to male leadership, any guesses which gender would Pakistanis favour for a boss?

To have an idea about leadership choices in our country a small survey was conducted the three metropolitan cities. Though approximately 1,000 people participated, they consisted of millennials as well as generation X and the results were quite predictable. About 45 per cent said they preferred to work under a male boss, while 20 per cent reported they wanted a female boss. The remaining 35 per cent stayed neutral, saying a good boss is like a facilitator who helps you perform better at work. Surprisingly, countless women opted to work with a male boss. This data proves that the leadership role inclinations are more or less the same globally — that is, men should lead. But why are women still considered unfit for leadership positions, despite empowerment and development?

When this question was posted on various online and offline forums it sparked some heated discussions. T.A. Siddiqui, manager at a local bank, reasons, “I wish to work with a male boss because women tend to take all the credit and glory of one’s successful deliverables. They get paid for the work we (men) do. Besides, female managers tend to be quite impulsive and fret a lot.”

“I’d work for a male boss anytime because men aren’t envious like women tend to be and won’t put me down,” said Sofia*, a marketer, on Whatsapp. “My female boss neither grants me ownership of any project nor allows me to coordinate with any external stakeholders. Perhaps she feels threatened,” added Sofia.

“Not all women are thirsty for money and recognition,” argued a fund-raising specialist who wished to remain anonymous, countering Siddiqui’s and Sofia’s statements. “Many become your mentor and help you climb the corporate ladder. For example, my boss is extremely inspiring. Her compassionate approach towards resource development has helped me step into my patron’s shoes to empathise with his sentiments — this is something that only a woman can do.”

Aamer Hussain, a professor, motivational speaker and project manager at JPMC (Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre), while analysing the statistics of our survey was not taken aback by the stance adopted by the male participants towards female leadership. He explained that men prefer male bosses due to two basic reasons: stereotypes prevalent in our societies and different personality types of supervisors. Hussain elucidated, “For a long time, women were restricted from acquiring education, pursuing a profession or voicing their opinions in public. Therefore, strong stereotypes have been in practice since eons and any attempt to break them leads to condemnation by the opposite gender. It becomes difficult to take orders from a woman even though acceptance of female leadership is gradually increasing, as evident from 35 per cent neutral responses.”

The second reason, according to Hussain, is that individual traits, characteristics and emotional intelligence play a huge role in leadership. “Though women are more emotionally intelligent than men and lead from the heart, there are always exceptions like Siddiqui’s story where bosses and employees are incompatible with each other, he said. “Conflicts can occur with male bosses too. It depends on one’s experiences in the corporate environment with different managers. Qualities like impulsiveness, temper, excitement, emotions, etc are generally female attributes which don’t necessarily harm business, in fact they sometimes complement women’s hard work, dedication and sincerity.”

This is only one side of the story, so why do countless women prefer male bosses?

The reason is largely psychological. Since women are covertly competitive as compared to men who are overt, they harbour feelings for each other which direct their actions. When they feel they are losing control of things, they subject their opponents to emotional torture, which shifts their focus from work, giving the alpha female time to reclaim her territory. Kathi Elster and Katherine Crowley, co-authors of Mean girls at work, write in their book, “While most of us want to be kind and nurturing, we struggle with our dark side of jealousy and competition. Our covert competition and indirect aggression is what drives our mean behaviour at work.” Sometimes the intra-gender rivalry is fuelled by an unequal playing field. There are very few C-suite positions for women and they are still not paid equally.

Fortunately not all female bosses are live versions of Miranda Priestly (remember The Devil Wears Prada). There are many who help their colleagues achieve the pinnacles of success. “All bosses are different, every workplace relationship is unique, and common denominators for any blissful relationship are trust and respect,” says Hussain. “One needs to respect seniors no matter what the circumstances are and trust their judgement. If they are being unjust or rude, be patient and detach yourself emotionally. Both genders have their positive and negative qualities and one shouldn’t remain stuck on their particular preference for a boss. Give your boss a chance, irrespective of gender,” advises Hussain.

Food for thought— what do you think?

*Names have been changed to protect the individual’s identity

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 11th, 2016