Gallup survey confirmed that both women and men prefer a male boss. While the percentage who prefer a female boss has increased since 1953 when Gallup began asking this question, women would still choose a male (40 percent) over a female (27 percent) boss by a 13-percent margin. If almost half of the women in the workforce do not want to be led by women, this could pose a significant challenge for us as female leaders. One reason for this lack of support for female leaders might be the different expectations that many women have of how female leaders should behave. A participant in my research on women’s workplace relationships reflected a sentiment I heard frequently from both research participants and my coaching clients. The participant, a financial services manager, said, “I worked for a woman who was more task focused, which made it really uncomfortable for me. When a guy does that [is task focused], it doesn’t bother me as much.” Another research participant, who worked as a human resources manager, described her disappointment with a female boss who was not as friendly as she expected. She said, “I would rather work for a man. Then I would know what to expect.” Where do these different expectations come from? My research reveals that women expect more from a relationship with female leaders; these relational expectations reflect something I call women’s friendship rules. Women expect female leaders to build connection and trust through sharing and listening. Yet the masculine norms of most workplaces discourage relationship work as a “waste of time” or “coddling” and instead value task focus and autonomy. A woman engineer recently told me that she received a lower performance rating than she thought she deserved and was told that she spends too much time chatting with her staff, listening to them, and asking for their input. She was told that to prove herself ready for advancement, she has to demonstrate toughness and stop coddling her predominantly female staff. Her team’s results were terrific, but her style did not match the company norm for effective leadership. Her superiors did not understand that she was doing what she had to do to get such positive results. Adopting a masculine style and staying aloof from your employees might seem to be the simplest action you can take. However, scholars show the importance of relational skills for effective leadership, and staying aloof can backfire for a female leader. Not only might other women at your workplace feel uncomfortable with you, but your aloofness might also demotivate them and affect their productivity. We’ll look at other reasons that many women say they prefer a male boss in future blogs. Of course, not all women dislike having female bosses. Many women in my study and many female clients report feeling supported by female leaders in a way they do not experience with men. For example, these women said that their female leaders are more understanding about their struggles with deciding when to start a family or their needing time off for children’s events. Three Tips for Leading Women Here are some actions you can take to address your staff’s expectations and be an effective leader of women:
- Be friendly and relational with female staff members. Show an interest in the personal lives of your staff by asking about their weekends and vacations and inquiring about sick spouses or children. But be sensitive to cultural differences. In some cultures, sharing personal information outside of the family is not appropriate. The only way to be sure you are being sensitive is to ask people what is comfortable for them.
- Share some personal information about yourself, within limits. For example, share stories about your weekends, family, and hobbies.
- Listen to complaints and problems—but put boundaries on how much time you are willing to do so. Let people know that you want to know when something is wrong in their personal or work lives and that you will help find solutions if you can. You need to know if something is distracting them from their work or if they are facing other barriers to their productivity, and they need to feel that you care about them as human beings.