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Dr. Sonya Rhodes Headshot

What Plagues Women Bosses?

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FEMALE BOSS
Gregory Kramer via Getty Images

By Sonya Rhodes, PhD, and Susan Schneider, authors of The Alpha Woman Meets Her Match: How Today's Strong Women Can Find Love and Happiness Without Settling, out April 15, 2014

Even in today's world, old stereotypes about women bosses persist -- no question about that. In a recent survey by CNN, 35% of employees preferred a male boss; 23% preferred a female boss; and 42% didn't care. The gap between the preference for men over women bosses used to be huge, and yet now it's narrowing. Unfortunately, some of the stereotypes about women hold on: They micro-manage. They're bitchy. They aren't "strong" enough.

In any case, women bosses are here to stay. As a therapist who works with individuals and couples, I am interested not only in family relationships but in the way that people perceive their bosses and colleagues. The latter perceptions often unconsciously mimic family relationships: A colleague may bring out old feelings you had about your siblings. An older male colleague may take on characteristics of your dad or your uncle. It is common to see men in positions of authority unconsciously relate to women at work as wife, mistress, or daughter. This interaction, whether subtle or blatant, reflects a fusion of gender stereotyping and unconscious associations.

But now that so many more women have become bosses, it is common to see mother/daughter, older sister/younger sister and mother/son relationships develop between women bosses and their male and female workers. In psychological theory, we call this transference. Without realizing it, the female boss relates to her subordinates as the older sister, or mother. These patterns interfere with the supportive, motivating, inspiring, managing role of "boss," therby distorting the hierarchy that needs to be maintained.

The female boss can easily fall into the role of the "good mother/bad mother." The "good mother" is nurturing and protective, giving and tolerant, soft and cozy. Her boundaries are permeable and fuzzy. The "bad mother" is critical and unforgiving, demanding and officious, aloof and icy. Her boundaries are rigid. In both scenarios, the mother is all-powerful. (These paradigms are slightly exaggerated for rhetorical purposes, but they apply more than you may think.)

Does the "daughter" or "son" expect her female boss ("mom") to nurture her and/or criticize her? She/he may, on some level, expect to be treated as the "special child." Why is it that so many women in the workforce seem to be looking for the mentor, to guide their career into the upper echelons? Does this reflect the fantasy that mom will come to the rescue?

The "mother" in all these scenarios either falls into a maternal role or steps too far back in order to avoid it. The emotional distance in the relationship is distorted: either too close or too distant, too critical or too forgiving. Expectations are murky. A cycle of missed cues and misleading prompts creates misunderstanding and frustration.

As a boss, you don't have to be anyone's mom, but you do have to know what this loaded relationship can bring out in people, including yourself. You may be criticized, whatever you do, but be open to change and flexibility. Having happy employees is a good thing, because people who like their boss will work more productively and creatively. Strive toward becoming a "good" authority figure so that you can be fair: not too "nice" and not too "critical" or blaming -- it's a tough balance, but it's all a part of the job. Being self-reflective and clarifying expectations is the first big step.

Untangling messy relationships (and all relationships are, to one degree or another, messy!) requires understanding and action -- just remember that you're the boss!