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Women nor men care about the gender of their boss – but all of us are guilty to some extent of socially conditioned biases which lead us to evaluate female leaders differently to male ones.

There’s a long held perception that women find it more stressful to work for female bosses than for male bosses, and therefore if given the choice, would choose a male boss over a female one every time.

Does this perception have any basis in fact? As a trained researcher, I’m hard wired to look for evidence and I have to turn to rather dated studies for corroboration. There’s the Buchanan, Warning, and Tett’s 2012 study[1] which found that young women felt disparaged by their senior female bosses and believed they got sidelined by them in preferences for male subordinates and a Gallup poll running since the 1950s in the USA which showed that most Americans preferred a male boss. However, the poll also found that attitudes started to change from 2016 onwards with the gap in preference between male and female bosses closing significantly.[2]

With no recent studies available, I decided to carry out my own. In August 2022 I commissioned a market research agency to carry out a survey among 1,000 female and 1,000 male UK employees in their early to mid career cycle[3]. I wanted to explore their attitudes and experiences of working for female bosses.

When asked if they prefer a male or female boss, I found that 67% of men and 57% of women don’t really think it should make a scintilla of a difference whether their boss is a woman or a man – it’s about their competence after all. If there is any leaning towards one gender, then based on the results of my survey, it would be towards a female boss with 20% of men and 28% of females stated they’d rather have a female boss (only 16% of each gender stated they’d rather have a male boss).

There are some differences in the results for women when split by age. Around a half of young women aged 18-24 (52%) are the most in favour of having a female boss. That percentage sharply declines to only 15% of women aged 55 years and over. But the results of my survey don’t indicate older women prefer male bosses as only 23% said they did. More (61%) simply don’t mind if their boss is a male or a female, it’s whether they are a good (or great) leader that counts.

In our post-binary age where the very concept of gender is being deconstructed, we might like to think that gender is no longer relevant in society and the workpace. But perceptions can take generations to change. We like to say the gender of our boss is irrelevant to us, yet at the same time we perceive the traits and competencies of male and female bosses differently, perceptions that we are deeply socially conditioned into, which do in fact shape how we think about and behave with female and male bosses.

When asked about the top traits they associate with female and male bosses, my survey found that ‘Decisive and gets things done’, ‘Is willing to take risks’, and ‘Works well under pressure’ are rated to be the top three traits for a male bosses, while ‘Is compassionate and empathetic’, ‘Puts their team first’ and ‘Stands up for what they believe in’ are the top three for a female boss. The results are similar between men and women and are depressingly very stereotypical masculine and feminine caricatures.

The different perception of male and female bosses for me are a sign of the implicit biases we have about male and female bosses which reinforce an employment narrative against women in senior positions of authority and responsibility. Men are perceived to have these harder, tougher qualities, better suited at taking charge and getting things done, whereas women are softer, better at care-giving skills, and far more principled. There is an extensive body of research which shows that when women behave in ways that are incongruous with these stereotypical traits, for example, not displaying strong caring skills, they are judged harshly, particularly by other women which in turn makes then less likeable as leaders[4]. As Sheryl Sandberg observed: “Women aren’t any meaner to women than men are to one another. Women are just expected to be nicer” [5].

Women are very aware of the double standards they experience. In my survey, I found that women generally feel toughness – and we can describe this characteristic as decisiveness, firmness, persistence and doggedness, is perceived more negatively in women than in men. You might be surprised to find its younger women who feel women are perceived like this the most. I found that 65% of women aged 18-24 and 72% of women aged 25-34 feel that toughness in women is perceived more negatively than in men. The percentage lowers with women aged 55 years and over where it’s 44%.

Most of us don’t care about the gender of our boss. But the old troupes like the ‘Queen Bee’ still colour our judgements about women bosses. The first step is to address and eliminate our own implicit biases about women in leadership. Next time you come across an unpleasant and aggressive female boss, before you jump into thinking she’s a total b!t*h, step back and consider whether you’d think about her the same way were she a male!

[1] Trouble at the Top: Women Who Don’t Want to Work for a Female Boss, Buchanan, F Robert; Warning, Renee L; Tett, Robert P.  The Journal of Business Diversity; West Palm Beach Vol. 12, Iss. 1,  (Mar 2012): 33-46; Americans Still Prefer a Male Boss to a Female Boss, October 14, 2014, Gallup Poll.

[2] Americans No Longer Prefer Male Boss to Female Boss, November 16, 2017, Gallup Poll.

[3] The survey was carried out by Censuswide between 19 to 22 August 2022 among a randam sample of 1,000 female and 1,000 male employees.

[4] Eagly. A. H., & Karau, S. J. (2002) Role congruity theory of prejudice toward female leaders. Psychological Review, 109, 573–598.Ritter, B.A., & Yoder, J.D. (2004). Gender differences in leader emergence persist even for dominant women: An updated confirmation of Role Congruity Theory. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28, 187-193.Elsesser, K., Lever, J., (2011). Does gender bias against female leaders persist? Quantitative and Qualitative data from a large scale survey. Human Relations, 64(12), 1555. Elsesser, K., Lever, J., (2011). Does gender bias against female leaders persist? Quantitative and Qualitative data from a large scale survey. Human Relations, 64(12), 1569. Rudman, L. A., & Glick, P. (2001). Prescriptive gender stereotypes and backlash toward agentic women. Journal of Social Issues, 57, 743-762.


    Dr Parves Khan is CEO of ESOMAR, the global voice for research, insights and data analytics. With over 25 years of experience of driving business growth and inspiring teams, Parves is a dynamic leader in the Insights industry.

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