Why Women (and Men) Prefer to Have a Male Boss

Finally, an article in the Atlantic comes out and says it: Women generally can’t stand working for other women.

For the past few years, at least as the mainstream media would have it, it was supposed to be a “myth” that women bosses made life more difficult for their subordinates than male bosses, or that they actively sabotaged their female underlings’ efforts to advance. Here’s Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg writing in the New York Times in 2016: “Women aren’t any meaner to women than men are to one another. Women are just expected to be nicer. We stereotype men as aggressive and women as kind. When women violate those stereotypes, we judge them harshly.” Similarly, Stanford sociologist Marianne Cooper, in a 2016 Atlantic article titled, “The Myth of the Queen Bee,” argued that although female supervisors “sometimes” behaved tyrannically in the workplace, the idea that they were more abrasive than male supervisors was more a matter of long-held “perceptions” than reality.

But now comes Olga Khazan, melting off the sugar coating with a blowtorch. Khazan doesn’t pretend there’s a “myth” of the Queen Bee. She assumes there is such a thing as a Queen Bee, and that there are quite a few of them buzzing around America’s offices making life miserable for the lowly worker bees. Her article, in the September 2017 Atlantic, is titled, in cut-to-the-chase fashion, “Why Do Women Bully Each Other at Work?” Her lead sentence is equally startling: “The bitches, as Shannon saw it, came in three varieties.”

Shannon is the pseudonym of a young female lawyer who worked for sixteen months for a prestigious law firm in Philadelphia after graduating near the top her class from the University of Pennsylvania’s law school—and then, after she quit, blogged about it: “When I worked in biglaw, I always tried to avoid working for female partners,” she wrote in 2011. “In fact, at my last firm I was more than happy to join a group where ever [sic] single partner was male.” As Shannon wrote (and Khazan summarized in her Atlantic article), the three categories of “bitches” consisted of: 1) the “aggressive” bitch (“This is the partner who doesn’t think twice about yelling and verbally assaulting anyone around her.”); 2) the “passive-aggressive” bitch (“you think this woman is your friend. She takes you to lunch and gives advice and asks about your family. But then, when you least expect it, comes the sting”—typically in the form of deputizing a senior associate to tell Shannon her legal work was substandard; and 3) the “tuned out indifferent” bitch (“This is the partner that is so busy, both with work and family, that they don’t have time for anything. They give you an assignment with a 24-hour deadline, but it takes them weeks to actually look at your work”).

Khazan interviewed Shannon about her experiences and came away shocked: Isn’t sisterhood supposed to be powerful? Isn’t there a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other? But Khazan’s article is replete with reports from other women who thought the special place in hell should be reserved instead for the women they had been forced to work for: a lawyer who returned from a trip abroad to find that a female co-worker had told their boss “that my performance had been lackluster and that I was not focused;” a communications director who said a female manger had screamed at her, “How can I work when you’re so incompetent?!” and a defense analyst who had had two bosses, a man who praised the long hours of hard work she put in after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and a woman who accused her of plagiarism and pushed her out of the office.

All these anecdotes are in accord with numerous academic studies and surveys by organizations such as Pew and Gallup that found that when they indicate a preference for the sex of their bosses, both men and women overwhelmingly prefer males to females (the women surveyed by Pew were even more adamant than the men about not wanting to work for other women).

Unfortunately, Khazan fails to draw any interesting implications from this pattern of “wanton meanness” among women in the workplace—for example, that women may not be so much natural sisters as natural competitors with each other for men, status, and economic security. Khazan instead falls back on that old feminist bugaboo, workplace sexism. Citing a study, she concludes that the Queen Bee phenomenon occurs “when women are a marginalized group in the workplace, have made big sacrifices for their career, or are already predisposed to show little ‘gender identification’—camaraderie with other women.” Her suggestions: more of that camaraderie, plus employers who “make more of an effort to show talented women that they’re valued, since women who feel optimistic about their career prospects are less likely to tear one another down.”

Well, maybe. Years ago I worked as a researcher for a children’s magazine. Since the staff was all-female except for the photographer and the IT guy, it should have been a showcase of talented women valuing each other. Instead, I observed all three of Shannon’s varieties of “bitches” at each other’s throats aggressively and passive-aggressively every single day. (The most irritating variety was the “tuned out indifferent” female editor who would have me sitting in her office for hours while she picked over assignments and then disappear to take her son to his Cub Scout meeting.) So, while it’s always convenient to blame the patriarchy, it’s more likely that Mean Girls are born, not made—and they’re likely here to stay.

Image: Twentieth Century Fox

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  • Mack

    For me (bias alert: elderly white male) a mixed lot; at the present I work part-time for a woman young enough to be my daughter and who is a joy in every way, partly because she is confident and professional. Please know that if I were to mess up in matters of ethics she would shoo me out the door in an instant – but she would do so nicely.

  • Tehy

    Mean Girl syndrome starts in HS, way before any split in gender representation occurs. Can’t explain that away.

  • Diane Kamer

    Gotta bookmark this one for later. Don’t get me started.

    • Rock

      lol, come back later and unload! I’d love to hear it.

  • Rock

    Honestly, I’ve yet to suffer any bad experiences from a female leader. I don’t doubt that there are bad leaders, and I hold my breath when co-workers who I know are just power hungry tyrants go up and apply to the leadership roles, but thankfully, at the companies I work for, the Ladies are very selfless…damn. No. That’s not true. I remember one time. That girl brought out the inner Oliver Cromwell in me. But still. I also remember working for a male degenerate gambler.

  • Stacia Hines

    I have had excellent female bosses and even have one right now. On the other hand, I have had some horrifying experiences with female co-workers that also fit Khazan’s descriptions. In addition, my close relatives and a couple of friends have lived in fear of their female bosses. In summary, I tend to agree with Khazan, and I too wonder at the real cause. I’d love to see an article expanding on your thoughts in the last paragraph.

    • SheRa

      I would definitely agree with the co-worker comment. I worked in an office with all women at one point and could not wait to get out. I try to get along with everyone, especially at work, and I was caught in the middle of more than one squabble because I wouldn’t “pick a side”. I decided at that point I did not need to eat lunch with anyone. It was too stressful trying to keep up workplace friendships in that environment. Sad thing was, I got dinged on my next appraisal for not being social enough with the rest of the team. Go figure!

  • FrancisChalk

    Women harbor strong feelings of jealousy toward other women who are more attractive and desirable to men then they are. This is particularly prevalent with mid-to-late 30s and early 40s unmarried women. Thus if you’re a young, reasonably attractive women and your boss is a 38-year-old single women, expect to be treated poorly and unfairly.

  • SheRa

    This is a personality issue. I’ve had great bosses and not-so-great bosses of both genders. I will say that in my observations men are a lot more up front about their dislike than women are. With a man you can see the knife coming, but a woman will stick it in your back. Other than that, most of these personalities stem from jealousy, competition and fear of being unseated. These are workplace behaviors that can be attributed to both genders, but the reactions can be vastly different.