iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
GET UPDATES FROM Ella L. J. Edmondson Bell, Ph.D
 

When Mean Girls Go To Work

Posted: 04/20/10 11:11 AM ET

In February, for the first time in recorded history, women surpassed men in the nation's labor market. Though the numbers have been creeping up for a while, women now comprise the majority of the nation's workforce.

But before I could even raise a glass of champagne, I was faced with the cold reality that maybe it was too soon to celebrate. A recent discussion about leadership and gender with my MBA students made me realize that we haven't thought through the consequences of this new shift in workplace gender ratio.

Last month I asked my "Leadership Out of the Box" class -- the women, the men -- how many would prefer a male manager. Ninety percent of the women raised their hands, and a few of the guys. When I flipped the switch and asked how many would prefer a female manager, a number of men raised their hands, but only one or two women. At that moment I felt like somebody had thrown that celebratory champagne right back in my face.

My students aren't alone. Some studies have also shown that when women think "manager," they're really thinking "MAN-ager." Last year in a survey of 2,000 British women in full or part-time employment, 63 percent said they'd prefer a male over a female boss. According to the research, reported in London's Daily Mail and other media outlets, most felt men were stronger decision makers and better at "steering the ship."

What else might explain why a woman wouldn't want another woman as her boss? It doesn't take Sigmund Freud to figure out that some women go into the workplace looking for a father, especially those who didn't grow up with a strong father figure or male role model. They're looking for more than a mentor at work; they want a daddy, and not a mommy.

In my book, I spell out how this daddy hunger can hamper a woman's workplace success. I've seen women grow too dependent on their male mangers or spend too much time trying to take care of them and protect them, or the male supervisor becomes the ultimate authority, causing them to squelch their own desires and lose their voices. Because women like these can't connect the dots and recognize the psychological roots of how they're relating to their male managers, they can't change the behavior.

Some women think male managers are better at developing the employees that work for them than women. As the thinking goes, women managers, faced with the glass ceiling, have to put all their energy into themselves so they don't have time to build and grow new talent. This taps into some common stereotypes about women in the workplace.

Women, especially white women, are sometimes stereotyped as super competitive, looking out only for number one. Women like these are seen as bright and ambitious but not chummy. Think Queen Bee or even Annie Oakley, a loner battling the frontier with her finger on the trigger. This stereotype is also corporate code for "not a team player," "can't be trusted," "won't watch your back, but will probably stab it."

Black women, up against the twin devils of sexism and racism, are often labeled as "angry." Those who are serious and don't smile all the time end up characterized as Angry Black Women, a stereotype Michelle Obama struggled with early during her husband's campaign. Being branded as an "ABW" is code for "doesn't work well with others," "not a team player," "not a good leader."

Asian women can get caught in the stereotype of passivity, the notion that they don't speak up. Being thoughtful and reflective can look like "low emotional intelligence," "poor communicators," "not leadership material."

One student who preferred a male manager explained that she hadn't been developed by any of the female mentors and managers she'd had over the years for a different reason: Each one had gotten pregnant and left. She said she wanted someone there with her, to develop her in the day-to-do and the long run, not a here-today gone-tomorrow manager.

Point taken. If a female manager gets pregnant, she has to go on maternity leave. She can't power through labor, delivery, recovery, breastfeeding and the start of her baby's life, and then run back to the office in a few days or even weeks -- unlike her male counterpart who can be a new dad without the physical demands of childbearing. But another thought went through my head as I looked at this student: What's going to happen when you want to get pregnant?

Another student put it more bluntly: She said women not only don't take the time to develop other women, they're also not nice. Women, she said, tend to be critical and don't have empathy or compassion. They're the mean girls from middle school all grown up.

One of my male students finally raised his hand and strongly disagreed. He told of a woman manager who took the time to get to know him, supported him and understood and honored his strengths. Several men in the class nodded. The women looked at him with disbelief.

Of course my sample of students is small and, at the end of the day, people are just people, flaws and all, regardless of gender. But this isn't just a fluke. The point remains: As the workplace becomes more feminized and more women rise up the leadership ranks, what's going to happen when the secret is out that many women don't like female bosses? Or, that we don't always play nicely in the sandbox, I mean in the workbox with each other.

How do we help women move past their own stereotypes, conflicts and assumptions about their sisters who are in management positions where they work? And how do we make sure that women aren't so run down by their "second shifts" of family responsibilities or so run over by sexism, that they don't have the time or energy to develop other women?

I doubt that the majority of women in leadership roles today are self-involved Cruella de Vils with daddy issues. Too many women managers are trying too hard to create a level playing field for all women to let the sisterhood die.

Still, as a new generation of women continues to rise in companies across the country and all over the globe we must build relationships with each other across management lines. Wouldn't it be a shame if all the myths about women in the workplace played themselves out? Instead, I hope we can all play nicely and effectively in the company sandbox.