—Joan C. Williams
The year my husband was born (1953), only 5% of Americans preferred a female boss. That number has climbed to 23%, according to a new Gallup survey. The proportion of people who prefer to work for men fell precipitously, from two-thirds in 1953 to about one-third today.
Perhaps even more important is the sharp rise in Americans who expressed no preference, even when cued to care. Gallup’s question asked, “If you were taking a new job and had your choice of boss, would you prefer a man or a woman?” Only 25% of Americans expressed no preference in 1953 but today it’s 41%. More good news: more people judge their bosses not by their gender, but as people. This is more likely to be true the higher the level of the job. Only 36% of those with high school or less, but 46% of those postgraduate degrees, expressed no preference.
Male privilege, you might say, ain’t what it used to be.
Once we scratch the surface, though, the news is nastier. Americans who currently work for men are twice as likely to prefer to do so. Only 16% of Republicans prefer a woman boss. American women still face a steep uphill climb, something the pipeline won’t fix: young people (18 to 34) are more likely to want a male boss and less likely to express no preference than Americans aged 35 to 54.
Most striking is that a much higher percentage (40%) of women than men (29%) prefer to work for a man. Women also are more likely than men to prefer to work for a woman: 27% of women versus only 18% of men.
Both these statistics are puzzling, but I may have an explanation for each. Women might prefer to work with women for two reasons. They might, first, feel this offers them some protection from gender bias, including sexual harassment. Second, women without college degrees typically are in pink-collar jobs that have a distinctly feminine feel a male boss might disrupt.
How about the women who prefer a male boss? Have they just been burned by Devil’s Wearing Prada?
They may have experienced workplaces where gender bias pits women against other women, a pattern The New Girls’ Network calls the “Tug of War.” An important 2010 study of legal secretaries by law professor Felice Batlan illustrates this dynamic, as does my own research. Batlan surveyed 142 legal secretaries and found that not one preferred to work for a woman partner (although, importantly, 47% expressed no preference).
Why did many secretaries prefer male bosses? Simple: they aren’t dummies. In most law firms, most people who hold power are men. Women stall out about 10 to 20% of the time in upper-level management in professional fields like business and law, so if you’re aiming to hitch your wagon to a shooting star, men are a better bet. This is one way gender bias pits women against women.
Another is when women stereotype other women. “I just feel that men are more flexible and less emotional than women,” one secretary said, while another described women lawyers as “too emotional and demeaning.” The stereotype that women are too emotional goes back hundreds of years.
But “demeaning”? That’s interesting. Her boss may just be a jerk — some people are — but perhaps she was just busy. While a busy man is busy, a busy woman, all too often, is a bitch. Because high-level jobs are seen as masculine, women need to behave in masculine ways in order to be seen as competent. But if they behave too much like men — watch out.
This no-win situation fuels conflict between women who just want to be one of the guys and those who remain loyal to feminine traditions. “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. Indeed, many professionals find themselves expected to do what Pamela Bettis and Natalie G. Adams, in an unpublished paper, call “nice work”: being attentive and approachable in ways that are often time-consuming and compulsory for women but optional for men.
Conflict also erupts due to Prove-It-Again problems: women managers have to provide more evidence of competence as men in order to be seen as equally competent. This pattern again pits women against their bosses. “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.
But it’s not just female assistants who voice concerns about their bosses.
The interviewees for my forthcoming book What Works for Women at Work, co-written with my daughter Rachel Dempsey, illustrate yet another dynamic: some admins make demands on female bosses that they don’t make on men. And like many types of gender bias, this one’s inflected by race. One black scientist I interviewed felt her relationship with white administrative assistants was strained because, she said, she didn’t share their habit of bonding by sharing personal information (what Deborah Tannen called “troubles talk”). Black admins “just do not expect me to want to know anything about their personal business,” she said with some relief.
Women bosses also often feel that admins prioritize men’s work. One scientist I interviewed noted that administrative staff took longer to complete work given by women than men. Another agreed: “My stuff won’t get done first.” “They say the bosses are too demanding,” said a third, recalling a conversation with admins who worked with her. She had responded, “Well, the boss that you had before was equally demanding. The guy that you were working under was equally demanding.” The admins’ reaction: “Yeah, but that’s different.” Again, the secretaries know which side the butter’s on. And the female scientists I interviewed typically felt less powerful than their male counterparts.
As usual, gender dynamics are far from simple. The Gallup study confirms the eternal story: when it comes to gender flux, the glass is half full — employees now are more comfortable with female leaders and are more likely to simply treat people as people, leaving traditional gender stereotypes behind. But the glass is also resounding, maddeningly, persistently half empty. I read the evidence that more women than men prefer to work for women as evidence of persistent gender bias. And I read the evidence that more women than men prefer to work for men the same way.
Joan C. Williams is Distinguished Professor of Law and Founding Director of the Center of WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. She is the co-author, with Rachel Dempsey, of What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know (forthcoming from NYU Press, 2014).
[This article was originally featured on the Harvard Business Review blog.]