The Catch-22 of Being a Female Boss


The careers for most women follow an expected trajectory: We begin in our 20s, surrounded by young colleagues of both sexes; move into our 30s, when some of us leave entirely or shift to reduced hours to raise families; then throttle on through our 40s, the decade of major career advancement. As the ranks of women professionals thin, those of us who remain and move upward may face unexpected challenges related to the loss of our female coworkers. Just as we move into responsible roles as corporate and institutional leaders, ready to lead and guide both men and women embarking on their own ascent, we suddenly see that there are very few women professionals to manage. Because many have left along the way, we have pushed ahead with our heads down and have little experience managing female colleagues.

For women who have persevered through the corporate competition and finally attained a level of authority over a group of employees, we need to remember a few essentials. Not only is it critical to be genuine and play to our strengths, but we also must understand how societal expectations can sometimes play a role in the way our messages, as managers, are received.

Men and women who rise to managerial positions face many similar challenges, but there are unique complexities in the female-to-female workplace dynamic. Studies dating back nearly 20 years examine both the differing communications styles and skills of female and male managers, and how this impacts their employees’ job satisfaction. Data suggest that female employees reject women bosses who behave in a “masculine” or traditionally managerial way. Women employees, when surveyed about qualities they desire in their female bosses, react positively to empathy, support, sensitivity, and self-disclosure, which could well be characterized as historic female stereotypes. The attributes generally associated with male leaders — being persuasive, analytical, and action-oriented — are not influential in how women perceive their female superiors.

We might anticipate these stereotypes to change as more women enter organizations at a professional level, but biases change very slowly. More recent studies have made similar observations that “some skills and behaviors, may be considered essential for female managers but not for male managers.” Women both expect more qualities, typically labeled “feminine,” from their female superiors and give them lower ratings if found lacking. Women do not hold their male bosses to these same standards when evaluating them.

The catch-22 is that to advance in male-dominant organizations, women often must develop the more traditionally male traits. They generally attain their position through a heavy dose of the traditional male qualities we associate with success — determination, decisiveness, tireless work ethic, and effective use of authority. They repress their feminine qualities, only to find that the women whom they lead demand those more compassionate skills.

Consider the following example from my own experience. One of my employees, a young woman who was married with no children, came to me years ago and asked me about our policy on maternity leave. I said that we valued her tremendously, and we would try to accommodate whatever plan she had when and if she had a child. She then explained that she wasn’t similar to me (whom everyone knew was a workaholic) and that she expected to work from home part-time for an extended period of time.

I responded emotionally, defending myself as a caring, present mother, but I now realize that I overreacted. She hadn’t referred to me personally because she wanted to attack me; my colleague wanted me to understand her unique situation and to have me offer reassurance that her career would continue whether she had a child or not. She probably would not have spoken in the same way to a male boss who worked very hard through his children’s early years. The female to-female dynamic is different. The conversation demanded that I react compassionately to her. Perhaps I should have asked more about and shown more interest in my coworker’s plans for the future, rather than simply offering support and flexibility. While I thought that my response was caring and encouraging, I suspect that it might have come across as corporate HR-speak.

Women executives might try an approach that combines both feminine and masculine characteristics that include sensitivity, cooperation, accessibility, decision-making, analysis, and persuasiveness. For example, women tend to be naturally better than men at reading facial expressions for clues to the owner’s state of mind and opinion. Women need to translate that skill into understanding their employees, listening to their ideas and concerns, in order to result in a more satisfied workforce. If these female colleagues feel their boss is concerned about their well-being, they will be more likely to follow the direction and suggestions of that leader.

While traditional stereotypes are often frowned upon, women are now realizing that societal expectations may be the key to finding balance in leading others. All employees — but especially other women — will respond more favorably to a management style from women strong on listening, empathy, and collaboration. The climb up may well require a different approach than what it takes to stay there.