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.
Men, of course, can mentor young women, and many do. But they're more likely to mentor junior male associates, not out of intentional bias but because they simply see themselves reflected in those young men, and can interact without any hint of impropriety. And the many men in power who don't offer mentorship aren't really noticed. But if women aren't actively helping out other women every step of the way, we're selfish and failing our gender.
When we do succeed, we're also considered less likeable, while the inverse is true for men – successful men gain in likability. In one study, students evaluated the story of a successful entrepreneur, half the time described as "Heidi" and the other half as "Howard". Even though the stories were identical, Howard was perceived as effective and likeable, while Heidi was deemed selfish and a less desirable colleague. In another, the simple change of a name from female to male on application materials led evaluators to judge the male candidate as more competent and hireable; male candidates were also offered higher starting salaries and more mentorship opportunities than female candidates with identical credentials.
From the time we're little, girls are taught to play nicely, and the opinionated or determined ones are derisively called "bossy" – when was the last time you heard the word "bossy" applied to a little boy?
And even – especially – the most ardently feminist among us pin our hopes on the very few women at the top, and are even more spectacularly disappointed and angry when they don't meet all of our ideals.
Those facts, widely publicized by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In, were ironically illustrated in the response to Sandberg's book. When male CEOs write best-selling books on how to succeed in business, they're roundly lauded. When Sandberg does it, she's not adequately representing all women everywhere, and she's an out-of-touch rich lady telling the less privileged what to do. She's a know-it-all goody two-shoes and she doesn't know my life. She's bossy.
The take-away from the weight of the social science research on gender and power is that while you might truly believe your female boss was a real bitch or that your male boss was just better at his job, your views are colored by your boss's gender. Your assessment of him or her might say more about your own unrecognized biases than it does about any objective reality.
In the course of my career, the majority of my most committed mentors, champions and door-openers have been women. I've had great female bosses, as well as great male bosses. I've also worked for total jerks, and the jerks have been fairly apportioned by gender – I've worked for more male jerks than female jerks, but I've also worked for more men generally. But even as a professional promoter of gender equality, I've caught myself making unfair and gender-influenced assessments of my superiors – the tone of her email was bitchy while his was just direct.
That's the trouble with battling these forms of insidious, unintentional bias: most of us think we're fair-minded people who don't let things like gender, skin color, age or other factors influence our assessment of others' skills or character, but that's simply not the case. For the overwhelming majority of us who are not as fair-minded as we think we are, standard anti-discrimination policies and laws aren't going to get to the root of the problem. What needs to shift is awareness – individual commitments to checking in and taking a step back to assess your own thoughts. It also takes institutional commitments to countering unintentional bias, both by ensuring diversity in hiring and promotion and by effective education about how bias actually works.
It's heartening to see that more Americans than ever before state no preference for the gender of their boss. Now, we've just got to make sure that those stated preferences actually translate into the workplace.