Female Boss, Bad Review

Employees may see bad reviews by female and African American bosses as unfair.

By Marian M. Jones, published September 1, 1997 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

"She's a great boss" is easy to say if she's given you a rave review. But when a female superior gives an employee a negative evaluation, the subordinate is likely to see her as less competent than a similarly critical male boss, according to research by psychologist Ziva Kunda, Ph.D., and graduate student Lisa Sinclair at Ontario's University of Waterloo.

In the studies, male undergraduates were taped as they answered a questionnaire on interpersonal skills. The researchers told them their answers would be evaluated by a managerial trainee (in reality an experimenter) as part of a training program, and added that the students could watch the trainee's evaluation afterwards on videotape. The students were then allowed to rate the "managers," who had given scripted positive or negative evaluations. When female or black male trainees gave good reviews, they were rated as highly as their white male counterparts. But when the evaluations were harsh, ratings plummeted far more for female and black managers than for white males.

The reason? Stereotypes rear their ugly heads when people are challenged. Kunda fears that "as black people and women gain in power, they'll more often find themselves having to deliver bad news, and will be seen more through the lens of negative stereotypes." On a positive note, however, the high ratings given to female and black trainees who handed out good reviews indicate that when it was to their advantage, students could suppress negative stereotypes.