Female bosses are making some of the year's most prominent headlines, from tech execs Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer to the deposed New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson. One question on many minds is: Do I want to work for a woman? A 2013 Gallup poll found that despite a slight uptick in female corporate leadership, more than a third of American workers surveyed—both men and women—say they prefer working for a male boss compared to 23 percent who said they prefer a female boss.
Some 4.2 percent of the country's largest public corporations are now led by women, who also make up 14 percent of top officers in corporate America and 18 percent of board seats. A list of the 50 most likable CEOs from jobs community Glassdoor, culled from employee surveys, includes just two women—Yahoo's Mayer and Victoria's Secret's Sharen Turney—and they are in the bottom half of the list.
Perhaps there is good reason for this: A 2011 survey by the American Management Association found that 95 percent of 1,000 working women polled believe they were undermined by another woman at some point in their career, while a 2008 University of Toronto study of nearly 1,800 U.S. employees found employees working under a female supervisor reported more distress and symptoms of physical stress than those working under a male supervisor (no percentage cited; just those who worked for women more likely to report stress).
In explaining Abramson's termination, her boss, New York Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., outlined her flaws, even describing her using words often associated with the classic "Queen Bee," those women who aim to undermine or push aside their employees out of insecurity and competitiveness.
In a statement, Sulzberger wrote that: "During her tenure, I heard repeatedly from her newsroom colleagues, women and men, about a series of issues, including arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues...she had lost the support of her masthead colleagues and could not win it back."
An article on the folding of Newsweek described working under Tina Brown as "making The Devil Wears Prada look sane" and likened the experience to PTSD. City Council Speaker and failed New York City mayoral candidate Christine Quinn was often described in the media as combative, volatile, hyper-demanding, and vitriolic. Male and female underlings talked about her brashness, her temper and affinity for "old fashioned screaming," and her love of the F-word.
Yet being a woman in a position of power is a classic catch-22. For women to succeed, they have to be different, extraordinary, and not too emotional; that is, not "too feminine." At the same time, women also need to be relatable and likeable. Research, including a 2011 study published in the journal Psychological Science, found that women are held to different professional standards, and that being a "tough boss" means something different for women than it does for men. Standards of behavior are uneven.
One thing is for certain: There are bad bosses—male and female. There are good bosses—male and female. Choosing a boss based on perception only serves to reinforce certain stereotypes. Focus more on what sort of employee you want to be before deciding what sort of boss you want to have.
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com