Are female bosses evil? Really?

March 4, 2013

I once had a female boss from hell. It is no exaggeration to say she made her underlings' lives miserable. Not every day - much depended on her mood (and her alcohol intake at lunch), but many days you could feel the poisonous atmosphere hovering over the room about five of us occupied. You didn't have to be a psychologist to tell this woman was extremely insecure. She had landed her position because of, shall we say, connections with a certain male executive in another part of the company. She rose from secretary to manager very quickly without any chance to learn the ropes. She was, at heart, a good person, but once inside that roiling cauldron of politics and power plays that was the office, she was horrible, undermining people, but mostly women, at every opportunity.

So when I read this piece in The Wall Street Journal it rang bells. It also left me depressed because of all the stereotypes it brings up. According to the article, 'queen bee syndrome' is alive and well and women are still being bitchy to other women on a regular basis, in some cases deliberately wrecking their careers. This is the opposite of what Catalyst, the non-profit that promotes women in business, reported when they released a study last year stating that queen bee syndrome was false (though naturally they would want their study to reach that conclusion). The Journal piece echoes my conclusion about my former boss: that insecurity is at the root of this problem.

But maybe at least some of this is in our heads. The WSJ article points out a few things that may be part of the reason why women bosses get such a bad rap. I will touch on this in my next show, but it's worth stating here: women judge women bosses more harshly than they judge male ones. Both sexes expect certain 'caring' behaviors from women, and when they don't manifest themselves, we don't like it (see under Mayer, Marissa). Another point the piece makes is that some women do not listen to a woman boss the same way they do a male one. We are so used to drinking society's Kool-Aid about what men and women should be and do that we ourselves don't even respect a female in a leadership role.

I believe women in senior positions at work do tend to be more insecure than men in the same positions because of all the things we talk about on The Broad Experience: centuries of social norms telling us we shouldn't have power and don't know how to handle it, subtle or not-so-subtle messages from our families, and continuing ambivalence to us in the workplace itself. 

But what about the male bosses who have driven you nuts with their conniving and petty insecurities? And what about the great female bosses, like the ones who changed my (sexist) mind about the species? Thanks to Louise Chin and Ruth Shapiro of the Museum of Modern Art, who restored my faith in female managers by being fair, firm and, in Ruth's case, giving me a much needed telling-off one day. She taught me a lesson I needed to learn about not squirreling out of tricky situations with customers (thanks Ruth). And hats off too to Lynn Bolger of APL Digital, which was quite a frat house in the late '90s. Lynn always kept her sense of humor and sanity while surrounded by testosterone, and treated everyone fairly.

What we surely need for 'queen bee syndrome' to go away is workplaces (i.e. people) that genuinely treat everyone the same, and a society that deems it acceptable - no, encourages, women to excel at work as much as in any other area of their lives.