Sept. 4, 2008 — -- It's official. We can finally lay to rest that tired old stereotype of female bosses as manipulative, back-stabbing you-know-whats and get on with our lives.
Last week, the Pew Research Center published findings from a survey it conducted on gender and leadership. The 2,250 U.S. adults who responded rated men and women on eight leadership traits -- honesty, intelligence, compassion and the like.
In five of the eight categories, respondents said women blew men out of the water. In another two -- "hardworking" and "ambitious" -- respondents had women and men tied. In fact, according to those survey respondents, men only came out on top in the decisiveness department.
But that's not all. When asked flat out whether women or men make better leaders, 69 percent of respondents called it a draw.
Still, one survey does not a populationwide attitude shift make; most of us know people who favor working for one gender over another. And if you don't, the Pew Research Center is happy to remind you that 21 percent of its survey respondents said that men make better leaders (compared with the 6 percent who said that women do).
Your Nature Had Better Nurture
Maybe one in five Americans told Pew they can't get behind a female leader because they can't get past that She-Devil in the Corner Office stereotype. Maybe they think women managers are emotional train wrecks waiting to happen. Or maybe it's because, when push comes to shove, what some workers really want is their mommy.
A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology in 2007 found that women managers who were better at picking up on their subordinates' nonverbal emotional cues and doling out empathy accordingly scored brownie points with their underlings, while women managers without those sensibilities were judged harshly.
Respondents didn't praise or penalize male managers based on whether they picked up on those unspoken emotional cues though. In other words, we squawk if women managers aren't empathetic, but because we don't hold men up to the same emotional standard, male managers can get away with being emotionally, well, unintelligent.
"Being a female leader comes with a cost," said Kristin Byron, the assistant professor of management at Syracuse University who conducted the study. "Research that looks at female leaders suggests again and again that you can't just be a woman. People really believe that leadership characteristics are masculine. But how can a woman be a leader but not be too masculine? Women are really stuck saying, 'How do you navigate that?'"
Right or wrong, women get held up to a different standard, she said, a standard that expects them to blend the right amount of "female" and "male" attributes.
The Old Boys' Club: Not All It's Cracked Up to Be?
Looking beyond the presidential election, I wondered who these people were who held male and female leaders to two different standards. So I decided to conduct a very unscientific survey of my own, asking about 30 personal and professional connections whom they'd rather work for and why.
Not surprisingly, the answers were all over the map, from brown-nosers singing their managers' praises -- and wanting me to mention their "Best Boss Ever!" by name -- to people who'd been burned by a specific male or female manager and had written off working for the entire gender for all of eternity.
There were also the usual charges -- from women and men alike -- of female bosses being hormonal, wishy-washy, manipulative, vindictive, passive-aggressive, micromanaging psychotics.
And while it didn't surprise me that a number of women and men sang the praises of the "communicative," "super-supportive" female bosses they'd had (or their "direct," "drama-free" male bosses), I wasn't expecting to hear so many men lament that their male managers were overly arrogant and territorial.
"The guys I've worked for worked hard each day to prove that they were the leader of the pack," said Eddie Brown Jr., a communications director in New Orleans. "They also spent a significant amount of time bullying others or throwing their weight around."
Craig Huffstetler, an online marketing professional in Medford, Mass., said, "Male bosses feel distant, remote and seem to have an 'alpha male' issue and be very competitive, as if we were playing basketball on separate teams. Woman bosses have more compassion and understanding."
It Doesn't Have to Be Lonely at the Top
In addition to female managers knowing how to put the T and A in "team," there's mounting evidence that the more women occupy top management roles, the better it is for the women who report to them.
A 2007 study based on data from the 2000 Census and published in the American Sociological Review found that when a company employs more high-profile female managers, the wage gap between women and men shrinks.
As study co-author Philip Cohen explains it, female managers play an active part in reducing the wage gap.
"This could be directly influencing policies and practices, hiring and firing decisions and promotions," said Cohen, associate professor of sociology and director of graduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, "or it could be indirect, through providing contacts, mentoring, role models and support."
"This undermines the myth of the Sigourney Weaver character from 'Working Girl,'" he added.
Case in point: Brenda Christensen of Thousand Oaks, Calif., who's held executive positions in two different software companies and hasn't had many women working above her. Rather than slam the door shut behind her, she's gone out of her way to help other women get a leg up on the corporate ladder.
"I received a resume from a young lady," Christensen said, "and she was shocked when I called her and told her that although I had no positions available at the time, I would be happy to refer her to some of my contacts. She told me no other woman had assisted her as much as I had."
None of this is to say that one sex is better equipped to play boss than another. As far as I'm concerned, the only thing that makes someone a good boss is knowing how to motivate and manage others (although knowing how to order your own latte is a big help, too).
"My best boss was a female. My worst boss was a female," said Sydnye White, a television producer in Upper Marlboro, Md. "I don't know that being a female had anything to do with it."
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.