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Why Americans Are Still Scared of Female Bosses

Even in 2013, many people still prefer men in charge. It's a bias problem that doesn't have any objective reality.

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Who would you rather work for: a man or a woman?

According to a recent Gallup poll, just over half of Americans say they don't have a preference, but those who do strongly lean towards men. Forty percent of women and 29% of men say they prefer a male boss to a female one, and the results are even more skewed when broken down by political affiliation – Republicans, unsurprisingly given their socially conservative views, strongly prefer male bosses, while Democrats are about evenly split. That political divide helps to shed some light on why, in 2013, so many people still prefer to have men in charge. It's a problem of worldview and stereotypes, not of inherent characteristics or lady-boss bitchiness.

The good news is that the preference for female bosses is the highest it's been since Gallup started polling on this question in the 1950s. Back then, only 5% of respondents preferred a female boss, while 66% wanted to work for a man. But while the radical increase of women in the workforce has shifted views, we're still not living in a society that sees women and men as equally competent, likeable and authoritative. Americans don't prefer male bosses because men carry some sort of boss-gene on their Y chromosome; Americans prefer male bosses because male authority is respected while female authority is unbecoming, and because the expectations are set so high for women in power that it's nearly impossible for any mere mortal to meet them.

Even among ostensibly liberal, equality-supporting people, "that one horrible female boss I had" is a staple story in the work-and- gender debates. It's an anecdote that gets trotted out for little discernible reason other than as a suffix to an "I'm-not-sexist-but" grimace; a way to demonstrate the speaker's supposed honesty about the real problems with women in charge. And it's not a story that people are just making up – lots of us have, in fact, had female bosses who are less than stellar. The complaints vary, but are usually some combination of: she was bitchy; she was demanding; she wasn't nice or understanding; she didn't engage in enough mentorship of younger women; she worked unreasonable hours and expected everyone else to; she cut out too early to be with her kids; she was scary.

The problem isn't the fact that some female bosses suck, it's that if you have a crappy boss and he's a man, the conclusion is "I had a crappy boss". If you have a crappy boss and she's a woman, the conclusion is "I had a crappy female boss, so female bosses are crappy." No one sees a bad male boss as a reflection on all men everywhere, or emblematic of male leadership capabilities. But bring up women at the head of the table and every bad female co-worker or supervisor suddenly becomes Exhibit A for what's wrong with female bosses.

I saw this too often when I worked at a large corporate law firm. Younger female associates felt put out when the small number of female partners weren't there to adequately mentor and guide them, feeling it was the responsibility of the more senior women to take the younger ones under their wings in female solidarity and sisterhood. Of course, many of the female partners and senior associates did mentor the younger women, but women in law firms become fewer as you move up the ranks – we vastly outnumber men in the secretarial staff, are about even with them in the junior associate classes, and then become fewer and fewer up the seniority chain. By the time you reach the tippy-top, fewer than 1 in 6 are women. It's a gendered seniority structure – pyramidal for women, tower-like for men.

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