Studies consistently confirm that women bosses are less popular than their male counterparts. But experts say that's due to a double standard in the way colleagues view female and male bosses. Increasing awareness of the bias may help, but some experts say leaders should just focus on being the best they can be.
Throughout her career at Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, where she most recently served as vice president of design, innovation and strategy, Claudia Kotchka observed what she says is a prevalent double-standard in the American workplace: Employees were far more disapproving of cantankerous female bosses than male bosses who exhibited the same behavior.
"I definitely think there's a double standard," says Kotchka, who now works as an independent consultant since retiring from P&G in 2008, where she oversaw a staff of 350 and reported directly to P&G CEO A.G. Lafley.
"I do think people tend to be a lot more forgiving of men who are assholes than women who behave that way," she says.
B.J. Gallagher, a Los Angeles-based management consultant and author of the book It's Never Too Late to Be What You Might Have Been, puts it more succinctly: "A male boss doesn't suffer fools gladly; a female boss is a bitch."
Surveys over the last few years consistently confirm that women bosses tend to be significantly less popular among employees of both sexes than their male counterparts, irrespective of their behavior.
Felice Batlan, an assistant law professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, surveyed 164 legal secretaries as part of a report that will be published next year in Studies in Law, Politics and Society. The majority of the secretaries said they preferred to work for male associates and partners.
In written responses, the secretaries (about 97 percent of those surveyed were female and 78 percent were 41 or older) said women bosses were emotional and demanding, with "more to prove" and a penchant to "put on airs."
The gap in popularity between male and female bosses has been well documented: A 2006 Gallup survey found that 34 percent of men preferred a male boss while 10 percent preferred a female boss. Forty percent of women preferred a male boss, while 26 percent preferred a female boss. The remaining respondents had no opinion.
The problem facing female bosses, experts say, is that they're given significantly less latitude -- by members of both sexes -- about their behavior.
"Women have a very narrow path to walk; they risk coming across as a doormat or a bitch," says Robert Sutton, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University and author of the upcoming book, Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best and Learn from the Worst.
When female bosses try to adopt the characteristics of male bosses -- assertiveness, decisiveness, etc. -- it often backfires, he says. But when they strive to be nice, they're seen as doormats.
"You'd think female employees would be more understanding of female bosses, but research has consistently shown that women and minorities tend to buy into the stereotypes about themselves -- women tend to be sexist, African-Americans tend to be racist, and so on," he says. "It's pretty depressing."
Some female bosses may alienate their female direct reports by trying too hard to act like men, says Sasha Galbraith, a Breckenridge, Colo.-based management consultant and a former vice president at Wells Fargo.
"Lots of female bosses feel like tokens, so they struggle to fit in with the men, and that can mean shunning your own group," she says.
In many cases, women bosses fail to win acceptance because they're trying to emulate characteristics that don't come naturally to them, says Galbraith.
"The archetypal authority figure is one that reflects masculine qualities," she says.
"Women are stuck trying to mimic that, while still coming across as feminine, and it doesn't quite work. The fact is, women have fundamentally different approaches to managing than men -- they tend to be more collaborative, more relationship-focused -- yet they're under pressure to conform to the male model," Galbraith says.
(Conventional thinking about gender differences in leadership styles, however, is mostly wrong, according to a new study that finds men and women have some similarities in style. You can read our story on that study here.)
What, if anything, can HR do?
Sutton suggests making employees aware that they may be judging their female supervisors unfairly.
"Let the employees -- both men and women -- know that they're more likely to be less forgiving of women bosses," he says. "Awareness goes a long way."
By the same token, women bosses -- unfairly or not -- need to be especially sensitive to how they're perceived in the workplace, he says.
"The bar for women being in tune with people for how they're perceived is simply higher," says Sutton. "But keep in mind that, if you have to choose, it's better to be a bitch than a doormat. At least you'll be respected."
Kotchka suggests that women bosses simply focus on being the best they can be.
"Seek constant feedback, listen a lot and learn what not to do from the bad bosses you've experienced yourself; I've found that to be immensely helpful," says Kotchka, whose mandate at P&G was to encourage all divisions of the company to focus on breaking down barriers to encourage innovation.
"But above all, understand the concept of servant leadership: As a boss, you should assume that people will perform wonderfully unless proven otherwise and your job is to find out what they're great at and then give them the tools to succeed. And never convince yourself that you have all the answers."