Do Men or Women Make Better Bosses?

Fair or not, people have gender biases about bosses.

September 09, 2008, 6:15 PM

Aug. 6, 2009 — -- My first boss was a man twice my age. He taught me how to write a headline, punch up a lede and copyedit my stories. He also made inappropriate comments about my legs on a weekly basis, despite the fact that I kept them hidden under frumpy, ankle-length skirts.

My next boss was a year older than me. When she hired me to do her filing and data entry, she promised me a raise in a year. When my 18th month rolled around and she still couldn't get approval for my pay bump, she called me into her office and proceeded to cry on my shoulder. Then she went to lunch with her manager pals like she always did, while I ate a tuna sandwich at my desk.

Like many, I've worked for bosses of all stripes over the years, from the woefully inept to the thrillingly supportive to the borderline psychotic. Some of my best bosses were men; some were women. Same goes for the worst of the bunch; each gender's been well represented there, too.

That's why when I first read the recent New York Times interview with Elle Group executive Carol Smith, who insisted women make better managers, I bristled. How can women ever expect men (and for that matter, other women) to stop stereotyping female bosses as shrews, softies or micromanaging morons if we're not prepared to stop stereotyping male managers?

The Double-Bind for Women

Fair or not, people do have their biases. I have an entire inbox of e-mails from workers of both genders telling me why they dislike working for men (too grabby, competitive, uncollaborative) and why they dislike working for women (too weepy, petty, ineffective).

Only now that we've reached the 21st century, women with grumbles about female managers often pepper them with caveats and apologies.

"Although I hate to say it, men are much better to work for," Jane, an office manager, said via e-mail.

Of a previous job at a counseling center, where most of her colleagues were female, she explained, "There was always some kind of drama, gossiping and backbiting going on -- from people who were trained in conflict resolution."

Not so in her current position at a law enforcement unit comprised mainly of men.

"Even considering their high-stress jobs, I've never heard any of the petty complaints, whining about their co-workers and outright hostility that was always taking place at the counseling center," she said.

And some women who've had positive experiences with female managers still said they'd rather have a male boss.

"I have had great bosses of both genders, but I still have a preference to work with men," wrote a corporate trainer who didn't want her name mentioned. "When there is a problem with a male boss, it's normally about the work. When there is a problem with a female boss, it could be the work or something personal. I hate to say it because I am a woman."

And I hate to hear it. Because even today, only 15 percent of executives in Fortune 500 boardrooms are women. And the faster we recognize that some bosses, companies and industries are more toxic than others -- regardless of gender -- the easier it will be for more women to reach the executive suite.

Turning Women Into Men Isn't the Answer

I suspect that no matter how many surveys and studies on the merits of female leaders think tanks and universities churn out, we'll still be having this conversation for years to come.

Sunday's New York Times "Room for Debate" blog post on whether women make better bosses drew hundreds of heated comments from readers, some outraged by the question in the first place, many strictly in favor of either male managers or female ones.

Thing is, so many workers have so little faith in the people they work for, be they male or female. Earlier this year, 52 percent of 3,000 U.S. employees and managers polled by international staffing firm Randstad said there aren't enough qualified managers in their organization.

Unfortunately, failing miserably as a manager is much more of a burden for women, said Jan Combopiano, vice president and chief knowledge officer of Catalyst, a nonprofit that researches women in the workplace.

"If a man fails, you're not going to think it's because of his gender," she said. But, she explained, that's not necessarily the case if a female boss falls flat on her face.

There's no denying that, in general, men and women have different communication styles. (Witness the dozens of letters in my inbox about less-than-nurturing male managers and female bosses who have difficulty giving a direct order.) Yet any workplace consultant will tell you that managing well is a skill that can be learned, no matter what your anatomy.

"We're never going to make men into women and vice versa," said Betty Spence, president of the National Association for Female Executives. "We really need both ways of seeing, both ways of thinking. We need the male focus, and we need women's ability to multitask."

In other words, men and women need to collaborate in the workplace and draw on each other's strengths, not try to change every last trait of each other.

"When men are sitting there watching a football game and you walk in naked, they aren't going to see you," Spence said. "We're just going to need to accept it. And use it. Because that focus is necessary in business."

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 — "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" -- 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,

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