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Why we don't like women bosses (and why it matters)


THERE is just something about a strong, assertive female boss that somehow gets under people's skin. As much as women have been urged to lean in to leadership, this clarion call has not exactly been met with the greatest of enthusiasm. And it is no surprise why. Just take a look at the reactions to US presidential elect Hillary Clinton's campaign so far. From being called names such as a "nasty woman" to the inevitable B-word, the astonishing vitriol against her often has little to do with her qualifications, policies or ability.

Closer to home, a recent report by Randstad found that 76 per cent of Singapore employees prefer a male boss. This is much higher than the global average of 65 per cent, if that wasn't already dismal enough. And the thing is, we are not even surprised by this. Society might have progressed from when women just stayed at home to care for the children, but we are nowhere close to seeing them as equal when it comes to positions of power. Admit it, we all have a female boss that we tend to hate. Well, either that, or none of your superiors is a woman.

We all know there are still not enough women at the top. Enough statistics have shown that women are the minority when it comes to boards and in the C-suite, which could explain the additional scrutiny female leaders face. But the funny thing about female bosses is that we often deny that we view them any differently. We would solemnly swear that it is because of a particular trait or personality quirk that has absolutely nothing to do with her gender. Or worse, we are oblivious that we are perpetuating sexist stereotypes. Be honest: How many of you have attributed a female boss's erratic moods to PMS (premenstrual syndrome)?

Adaire Fox-Martin, president of SAP Asia Pacific Japan, says: "Women leaders are judged more than male leaders, on many more dimensions, from clothes to hair and make-up. We are judged on criteria that don't apply to men." Lim Chai Leng, director of Banking, Finance and Accounting at Randstad Singapore, believes that an outdated mindset about gender roles has a lot to blame for this. She points out: "When a male boss is assertive, he is typically seen as confident and decisive. When a woman tries to exert her authority in a similar fashion, she could be perceived as aggressive, emotional or irrational."

I concur on this point - we have a problem with ambition in women because we view it as going against the grain of what women should be like. Yes, it's the 21st century, and women have every right to pursue any career they want. But once they rise to positions of power and exhibit traits such as dominance, people get uncomfortable. More often than not, we have this belief that women should play the supporting role instead of the one leading the charge. Political pundits have observed that Mrs Clinton's approval ratings were often high when her roles conformed with gender roles, such as her beginning years as first lady, when she stood by Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and when she was a dependable aide to President Barack Obama as secretary of state.

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When women do move up the ranks, I argue that we - rather unfairly - want women bosses to be nurturing, likeable and warm, because that's what we expect women to be like. In a way, this explains the appeal of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. She is powerful, but she is also very relatable. Not every female boss is like that, and this is often held against them.

Let's go back to Mrs Clinton as an example. Despite her remarkable achievements, she has been described as cold and calculating. And let's face it, it's because she is a woman. Certainly no man would be criticised for such qualities. In one of Mrs Clinton's more revealing interviews, she shared with Facebook's Humans of New York the difficulty she faced as a woman running for the highest office in the country.

"Women are seen through a different lens. It's not bad. It's just a fact. It's really quite funny. I'll go to these events and there will be men speaking before me, and they'll be pounding the message, and screaming about how we need to win the election. And people will love it. And I want to do the same thing. Because I care about this stuff. But I've learned that I can't be quite so passionate in my presentation. I love to wave my arms, but apparently that's a little bit scary to people. And I can't yell too much. It comes across as 'too loud' or 'too shrill' or 'too this' or 'too that'."

Her approval rating has been plunging drastically during the presidential race. Even Mr Obama stepped in this week to challenge male voters to "look inside" themselves and examine if sexist mindsets are holding them back.

But if you think men in the workplace are the ones holding female bosses to different standards, you are so wrong. In the same Randstad survey, 74 per cent of women in Singapore declared a preference for male direct bosses, compared to a much lower global average of 58 per cent.

While Ms Sandberg paints a positive picture with her Lean In campaign that brings the ya-ya sisterhood to mind, reality has not caught up. Like the proverbial crabs in a pail, we tend to pull other women down.

Foolish crabs

From what I have observed, women are harder on other women because many view the corporate world as a zero-sum game. We see so few women at the top, so we assume so few opportunities are available for us. So, like the foolish crabs, we compete with one another instead of helping one another up. We assume if someone reaches the top, it means we are left behind.

What this means is that women at the top just can't win - men feel threatened, while other women seem intent to drag them down. And such behaviour has consequences on female leadership. We hear anecdotally of female leaders swinging to extremes by either trying too hard to please or becoming too aggressive, and it seems that there may be a grain of truth in this. According to a study led by Yale University's Andrea Vial, it indicated that female power-holders are seen as less legitimate than males in similar positions. This triggers women to react by adopting a leadership style that is either too tentative or aggressive, further reinforcing negative stereotypes of female leadership, and a vicious cycle begins.

Perhaps due to a lack of female role models at the top, Ms Fox-Martin observed that women in the workforce tend to be less confident in their own ability. "When I ask people to take on a role, a young woman will tell me: Oh, I'm not ready yet. While the young man would be like: I thought you were going to ask me last year. Women need to wake up every day, look in the mirror, and tell themselves they are good enough . . . I still do that."

There is no easy solution to this, but an awareness of our double standards is a good start. As more women aspire and attain positions of power, the rest of the workforce must give them the support that they need, and this includes other women. Not only will this enable them to be more effective leaders, it also paves the way for other women. In time, it is hoped that women in power no longer becomes something newsworthy and leadership stops being viewed though a gendered lens. As Ms Fox-Martin puts it: "I look forward to the day when I no longer get asked questions on how I juggle being a mum and wife with work, which my male colleagues don't get. I look forward to the day where we judge leadership on its own, full stop. And not (under the umbrella of) female leadership."


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