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Hate Your Boss? Ask Yourself if Gender Bias is to Blame

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FEMALE BOSS
Alamy

co-written with Rachel Dempsey

Once a year or so, a study or trend piece comes out about why women are bad to work for. Like Good Morning America's "Bad Female Boss? She May Have Queen Bee Syndrome." Or The Daily Mail's "Men are the best bosses: Women at the top are just too moody (and it's women themselves who say so)." Or Oprah Magazine's "When Good Women Make Bad Bosses." And then there's popular culture: from "Working Girl" to "The Devil Wears Prada," the evil female boss is almost as tired a trope as the prostitute with a heart of gold.

The most recent addition to the canon comes in the form of the article "Not One Legal Secretary Preferred to Work with Women Lawyers," published on the ABA Journal's website. Based on a study of legal secretaries by law professor Felice Batlan, the story created an uproar, as women's groups and activists protested that the article perpetuated stereotypes of women lawyers.

The response was understandable: these articles do perpetuate stereotypes. But the solution is not to ignore the issue altogether, but rather to recognize this storyline as illustrating one of the most pernicious and overlooked types of gender bias. When women experience bias in the workplace, it can often turn into conflicts between women, a phenomenon we call gender wars.

One of the reasons legal secretaries prefer to work for men is obvious: in most law firms, men hold the power. (Nationwide, only 19% of law firm partners are women.) A secretary's prestige is likely higher if she works for a powerful partner. So the fact that many women secretaries prefer to work with men proves not that women lawyers are difficult but that secretaries are rational actors functioning in a sexist environment.

That's just one of the dynamics at work. Women are also frequently stereotyped as too emotional. Said one secretary: "I just feel that men are more flexible and less emotional than women." Another described female lawyers as "too emotional and demeaning." It's possible that these particular secretaries worked with bosses who were actually too emotional. But studies suggest that men's anger is likely to be seen as legitimate, while women's is seen as irrational or hormonal, so it may also have been a matter of different interpretations of similar behavior. Although the secretaries interviewed were women, that doesn't make them immune to bias against women.

In some ways, the fact that the secretaries interviewed in the study were women actually makes them more susceptible to bias against women. Women lawyers fill a traditionally masculine role, while their secretaries fill a traditionally feminine one. All professional women find themselves walking a tightrope between masculinity and femininity, and when people choose different approaches to how they walk the tightrope, conflict often breaks out. "Secretaries are expected to engage in traditionally feminine behavior such as care giving and nurtur[ing], where[as] women attorneys are supposed to engage in what is stereotypically more masculine behavior. Given these very different expectations and performances of gender that occur in the same space, the potential for conflict is enormous," Batlan concludes.

As a result of this bias, women need to provide more evidence of competence than men, a pattern that the secretaries themselves observed. "It would seem as if female associates/partners feel they have something to prove to everyone," noted one secretary. "Females are harder on their female assistants, more detail-oriented, and they have to try harder to prove themselves, so they put that on you," said another. Because women's mistakes are noticed and remembered while men's are soon forgotten, women partners may feel they have more to lose if they, or their assistant, make a mistake, and may as a result be harsher with their secretaries.

As is always the case with gender wars, both groups of women are disadvantaged by gender. Secretarial jobs are undervalued, underpaid, and have little or no career track -- the classic ways women are disadvantaged when they do "women's work." Women lawyers are disadvantaged by gender in different ways, as explained above. Gender wars arise because each group of women is disadvantaged in different ways that pit them against each other. Note that we are not faulting either the attorneys or the secretaries. Probably the secretaries need to become more aware that women can engage in gender bias, and attorneys (male and female) need to become more aware of the gender bias that causes them to devalue the important work secretaries do.

The key message is not for individuals, but for organizations. Automatic bias is built into the automatic, everyday-ness of workplace interactions and identities, and will persist until it is identified and organizational structures are put in place to correct it. Organizations that face gender wars need to recognize them not as evidence that women would progress if only they could get along, but as a particularly sensitive indicator that gender bias is built into their business systems. Any organization plagued by gender wars has work to do if it intends to give a fair shake to women -- both lawyers and secretaries.