Sexism is not “surprising.” It is, however, stupid.

This week, the UK’s Daily Mail reported on the results of a new survey about gender and workplace leadership. The paper called the main finding, that men are overwhelmingly seen as better bosses, “surprising.”

I’m not surprised. The fact that most people, even women, would rather work under a man than under a woman, is well-established. Perhaps what the Daily Mail really ought to have found surprising were the reasons respondents to this poll gave for preferring male bosses. They included:

  • Men have “no time of the month”
  • Women “spend too long worrying about their appearance”
  • Women are “unreasonable”

Welcome to 1810, folks, where women are too vain, hysterical and premenstrual to lead!

Seriously, though, while some of these reasons are totally absurd and make me wonder exactly what century these people are from, there’s nothing new or surprising about the sentiment that women make bad bosses. In fact, a recent study by Catalyst, an NYC-based research and consulting group that focuses on improving workplace diversity and increasing the number of women business leaders worldwide, addresses the roots of this perception. The study identifies the “double-bind dilemma” for women in leadership, which is this: culturally, when we picture a boss, we picture a man. And culturally, when we picture a woman, we don’t picture a boss. So, women bosses are breaking two sets of rules – our rules about what it means to be a boss, and our rules about what it means to be a woman.

This means that no matter how a woman leader behaves, she will catch heat for it. If she’s gentle, or nurturing, if she “takes care,” as Catalyst researchers put it, she catches heat for being a bad boss. If she’s authoritative, or commanding, if she “takes charge,” she catches heat for being a bad woman. It’s a double-bind, a no-win situation.

With that in mind, take a look at those explanations offered by the survey respondents. Those are all “womanly” traits – vanity, hysteria, a tendency to bleed from one’s uterus.  But look at some of the other top reasons offered:

  • Women are “too competitive”
  • Women are “sharp-tongued”
  • Men are “less interested in office politics”

When women bosses act like women, they’re criticized. When they act like bosses, they’re criticized. It’s an impossible situation, and the only way to improve it is to get more women into leadership positions, so that “boss” and “woman” are no longer mutually exclusive.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • Emily

    I wonder if there might also be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy occurring as well. Since most people think male bosses are better, they might be less inclined to take female bosses seriously. The female boss must them be even harsher and more cut-throat just to get her employers to listen to her. Of course, I have no idea if there is any truth to this, but its something to think about. I’ve found that when I’m in a leadership position, I act very differently depending on if I’m leading men or women. For women, I can generally be myself. With men, I’m a lot less goofy and willing to rub elbows, because when I do, I am often ignored when I try to get them to do something.

  • nazza

    I’ve had both male and female bosses before and I have to say each brought different styles of management to the table. I think this discrepancy is partially generational. Recently I was part of a workplace where the oldest person on staff was in her late thirties. No male employee felt the least bit threatened or put off by this at all.

  • Eva

    Well put! Thank you.

    • Emily

      Brilliant article, thanks for posting. A close family member of mine (a woman) is an executive and generally powerful. The only way she is able to maintain (and obtain) her status is to act like a man. Almost all her friends are men in power, and they continuously tell her she’s one of the guys (which she takes some offense at). She drinks scotch, refrains from showing any emotion, and generally takes charge/dominates any situation. I like to think she’s a role model for her success as a woman in charge, but it does show just how far we still have to go. I, for one, find it insulting that the only way they view her as an equal is that she’s “one of the guys.”
      And don’t forget what happened with Hillary Clinton. Regardless of her politics, many people (women included) didn’t like her because she was “too big a bitch.” Disagree with her politics all you want, but “bitchiness” shouldn’t be your main factor for not voting for her. I never once heard my friends mention any of her policies, just her lack of womanliness and her incredible amount of bitch. Thanks again for the great post!

  • somali

    I have listened to people who have female supervisors and they tend to alot ZERO tollerance to them what so ever. With men, people have plenty of excuses piled up to throw out at them whenever they act like jerks. With women, there is a ton of overanalyzing from women and dismissal from men.

    Basically, men gossip like crazy and they love to gossip about women. Our society allows men to still place women in three categories: wife, mother or sister. Because of this, men make the rules. Women will rip apart another woman just so they don’t have to either deal with the men attacking HER or for the pathetic patriarchal pat on the head.

    I think in order to stop the disparity in the workplace we need to stop tagging along to Hooters for our company lunches. We need to stop allowing terms like “chick flick” to invade our vernacular. Once those seemingly little things are suddenly not a regular part of our daily conversation, once every single crumb of life is not separated into “girls and boys” we will begin to see the boss as a boss.

    So basically, this article is a load of garbage. I think the down turn of the world economy is bringing more women into leadership positions and this is subconsious warfare.

    I can’t spell…by the way.

  • Smiley

    My comments, for what they are worth.

    Speaking as a man…

    I don’t think the OP actually responds to the article; no counter-arguments to (the perception that) women bosses “spend too long worrying about their appearance” or are “unreasonable”.

    Anyway. I have had many bosses in my career, in a number of companies. Around ten. Two were women. And both were the worst bosses I’ve had (two different companies).

    I know, I know – anecdotal evidence. But since most people’s opinions are based on their experience, I might as well add mine

    I won’t say that both spent too much time on their appearance, and I really have not thought about the biological aspects, but I have to say that bothe were pretty nasty; they bore grudges (and once they took a dislike to someone, his or her career was over), they really showed their dislike to an idea or to someone, and they were pretty sharp-tongued (probably actionable, now I come to think of it).

    None of the men came close to having those traits.

    Conclusions? The sample is too small. But if many others report similar experiences, then maybe there is something in it, no?

    One conclusion I have come to: I would think twice about moving to a job under a woman. Unfair? Certainly. Surprising? No.

    • katietheta

      This comment is disgustingly sexist and should be removed.

      Why the hell are you on a feminist website? Take your foolish generalizations elsewhere.

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