Studies have shown that companies with more women in leadership positions yield bigger return on investments, such as increases in diversity, innovation, and equity. But if higher female representation is good for business, then why do women still prefer male bosses? Indeed, a 2014 Gallup poll found that “39% of women wanted to be led by a man” (with 25% preferring a female boss and 34% reporting “no preference”), extending the 60-year run of women being partial to male superiors.
It is a seemingly contradictory reality that has two illuminating explanations:
With a dearth of opportunities available to women at top levels of business (e.g. only 4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women), there is a harmful feedback loop that persists: women who ascend up the chain have defied the odds to advance, making it so the numerous female employees who are coming up below them feel like “competition.”
That dynamic can create professional relationships that are wrought with tensions, with women who work for other women reporting more work-related stress than their male counterparts. In fact, a survey from 2011 found that 95% of female respondents had cited at least one instance of being undercut by another woman in the workplace. That statistic certainly rings true for me: after a glowing performance review, a former female boss threaten to fire me once I began inquiring about paths to promotion (I left the company before she could do so). And sadly, it makes sense why women in high positions would feel so territorial: one study showed that female leaders who actively mentor other women tend to be punished with negative performance reviews.
Lack of meaningful power
In a similar vein, a lack of true decision-making power for senior women contributes to a vicious cycle that make female employees weary of working for a female boss. Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter found that women (correctly) perceived that male leaders had more sway to secure resources and opportunities for the teams they managed than women on an equal plane in the company hierarchy. In other words, while a rising tide from a male superior might lift all boats, a high-ranking woman was essentially left on her own island. As Moss Kanter emphasized:
“Powerlessness corrupts. Being ignored, left out, overlooked, or the last to know are highly corrosive and demoralizing. In response, men and women alike tighten up and become over-controlling of whatever small territory they have, the essence of petty bureaucrats. But for women, it becomes another reason to argue that women think too small to be high-level leaders.”
The solution, according to Moss Kanter? “Give budgetary authority to women, and watch the respect go up.”
So, what can we all do to break the stigma of female leaders in the workplace? I think being aware of our own biases, especially internalized ones that harm women as a whole, is crucial to shifting the conversation. But ultimately, the most impactful change will come from the top, and as long as there is a lack of women occupying leadership roles, it’s going to continue to be an uphill battle. All the more reason to keep fighting.