Peggy Drexler Ph.D.

Our Gender, Ourselves

Meet the New Boss, Meaner Than the Old Boss?

Do females inject a new strain of negative leadership traits?

Posted Mar 06, 2013

We’re well into the second decade of the female advance on business cultures shaped and secured by more than a century of male dominance.

As the old structures give way, it was a foregone conclusion that the rise of female leaders would create a new kind of workplace. Instead of wielding power like a blunt instrument, they would elevate the soft skills – communication, team building and personal development.

There is ample evidence that women are changing workplace for the better – in everything from quality of work life to quality of results.

But multiple employee polls have also pointed to a possible darker side of the rise of female leadership:  the emergence of a new kind of workplace bully. She is a female executive who has fought her way to the top, but once there, has turned her back – and even her venom --  on the very women she was in a position to help.

Her numbers have given new life to a term first coined in the 1970s: “queen bee syndrome.” Those afflicted secure the perimeter of their hard-won place as alpha females by whatever means necessary. Instead of nurturing the growth of younger female talent they stealthily nudge possible competitors from the fast track to the side track.

Do females inject a new strain of negative leadership traits? Or is this simply an immune response by organizations and people to fundamental shift in the gender of the decision makers? Is it a significant factor in the workplace?  Or is the relative newness of mass female leadership simply blog-fodder -- random events in search of a trend.

There is much in the plus column for female bosses. A major survey by the consulting firm Zenger/Folkman published in the Harvard Business Review found that in nurturing competencies and developing talent, women scored higher than men. At all levels, women were rated by peers, subordinates and bosses as better leaders.

The U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee reports that the 25 Fortune 500 firms with the best records of promoting women had an 18 percent higher return on assets and a 69 percent greater return on investments than the Fortune 500 median for their industries.

Other studies, however,  paint a different picture – particularly for women working for women.

The Workplace Bullying Institute says that male bullies are generally equal-opportunity tormenters. Female bullies, on the other hand,  tend to direct their hostilities toward other women.

A Survey by the Employment Law Alliance found that 45 percent of American workers said they have been bullied or abused in the workplace. Forty percent of the reported bullies and abusers were women – who picked on other women 70 percent of the time. The American Management Association reports that 95 percent of working women believe they were undermined by women at some point in their career.

Some argue that these workplace persecutors are a grown up incarnation of the high school  “mean girl” – able to home in on vulnerabilities that men may not  see, using tactics that their male counterparts might never notice. Their assaults can be lethal to careers and even health, but they leave no fingerprints.

Complaints about female leaders also make a predictable stop at an all-purpose argument: women are too emotional

A U.K. study by the research firm OnePoll revealed many strong points of female managers – compassionate and good listeners among them. But two thirds of the female respondents preferred working for men because women bosses are more prone to “mood swings.” They are also, respondents said, are more likely to bring their personal  problems to the office..

What of the assumption that the influx of women leadership will open the door for more female leaders to follow?

 A study by MIT doctoral student Mabel Abraham and presented at a 2012 meeting of the Academy of Management studied 68 branches of a U.S. bank. Close to 45 percent of the bank’s branch managers are women. The study found that the high percentage of female managers did not affect either the male-female compensation gap or the level of jobs women in the organization hold.

A Washington University Study found that high-ranking women tend not to support high-potential female candidates for prestige positions in work groups. One interpretation: high-ranking women are often minorities in male-heavy leadership teams, and don’t want to bring on high-caliber competition for the few slots available. They also don’t want to bring on lesser talent, and risk being seen as a bad judge of people. So they tend to let organizational nature take its course.

Finally there is the no-win conundrum of conflicting expectations. Decades of studies show that women resent it when female bosses adopt the same abrupt, no-nonsense management style that they find perfectly acceptable for male bosses. But when a female leader becomes the office mother figure, they put the respect of other male leaders at risk. Soft skills may equate to soft leadership.

Catalyst is having none of that. The respected women and business organization says the image of the territorial, obsessively self-promoting  alpha-female simply does not square with the facts. Catalyst research finds that  65 percent of women who benefited from support for their own careers are working to develop new generations of talent. And 73 percent of those women are, in fact, developing other women.

There is an almost Newtonian aspect to research into gender behavior. For every conclusion, there is an equal and opposite conclusion. But this much is certain: more women are supervising more people in more organizations than at any time in history.

Generalizations are dangerous. But so is denial. The variety and consistency of employee survey results indicate that – even through their tactics and motivations may differ from the table-pounding male intimidator – some portion of the new wave of female managers qualify as bullies.

As long as they exist in numbers large enough to show up prominently in employee surveys, they will be a barrier to workplace productivity, not to mention the progress of female leadership.

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

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