Karen Firestone on “The Catch-22 of Being a Female Boss”

The Catch-22Here is an excerpt from an article written by Karen Firestone for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.

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The careers for most women follow an expected trajectory: We begin in our 20s, surrounded by young colleagues of both sexes; move into our 30s, when some of us leave entirely or shift to reduced hours to raise families; then throttle on through our 40s, the decade of major career advancement. As the ranks of women professionals thin, those of us who remain and move upward may face unexpected challenges related to the loss of our female coworkers. Just as we move into responsible roles as corporate and institutional leaders, ready to lead and guide both men and women embarking on their own ascent, we suddenly see that there are very few women professionals to manage. Because many have left along the way, we have pushed ahead with our heads down and have little experience managing female colleagues.

For women who have persevered through the corporate competition and finally attained a level of authority over a group of employees, we need to remember a few essentials. Not only is it critical to be genuine and play to our strengths, but we also must understand how societal expectations can sometimes play a role in the way our messages, as managers, are received.

Men and women who rise to managerial positions face many similar challenges, but there are unique complexities in the female-to-female workplace dynamic. Studies dating back nearly 20 years examine both the differing communications styles and skills of female and male managers, and how this impacts their employees’ job satisfaction. Data suggest that female employees reject women bosses who behave in a “masculine” or traditionally managerial way. Women employees, when surveyed about qualities they desire in their female bosses, react positively to empathy, support, sensitivity, and self-disclosure, which could well be characterized as historic female stereotypes. The attributes generally associated with male leaders — being persuasive, analytical, and action-oriented — are not influential in how women perceive their female superiors.

We might anticipate these stereotypes to change as more women enter organizations at a professional level, but biases change very slowly. More recent studies have made similar observations that “some skills and behaviors, may be considered essential for female managers but not for male managers.” Women both expect more qualities, typically labeled “feminine,” from their female superiors and give them lower ratings if found lacking. Women do not hold their male bosses to these same standards when evaluating them.

The catch-22 is that to advance in male-dominant organizations, women often must develop the more traditionally male traits. They generally attain their position through a heavy dose of the traditional male qualities we associate with success — determination, decisiveness, tireless work ethic, and effective use of authority. They repress their feminine qualities, only to find that the women whom they lead demand those more compassionate skills.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

FirestoneKaren Firestone is the President and CEO of Aureus Asset Management, an asset management firm which serves as the primary financial advisor to families, individuals, and nonprofit institutions. She co-founded Aureus after 22 years as a fund manager and research analyst at Fidelity Investments. Please click here to check out her other HBR articles.

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