We spend a lot of time talking about, reading about and writing about gender diversity, pay equity, the glass ceiling and the lack of women in executive and senior leadership roles. We hear about how there is movement and change happening in this area and that women are advancing the ball by “leaning in” more to accept executive responsibilities.
So here’s the pressing question I couldn’t shake that led me to write this article seeking answers: If there is this huge movement to support and advance professional women, why do both women and men report not only that they prefer male bosses but that they just prefer to work with men in general? What’s the real issue of working with women?

Can we create more female executives without actually wanting to work for them?

Can we support and advocate for the advancement of women and for crushing the glass ceiling without going all in? Who are female leaders supposed to lead when even women report they prefer to be led by men?

I think we have to ask ourselves – Are women, albeit sometimes unintentionally, keeping women down?

I’m not sure if it is a lack of advancement opportunities, societal norms and built-in expectations, some sort of professional jealousy or something else, but certainly there are strong underlying factors to contribute to these statistics and research.
  • According to this Forbes article, authored by Matt Symonds, “Today, women occupy just 4% of CEO spots at Fortune 500 companies, and fewer than one in five corporate board seats is held by a woman.”
  • This Daily Beast article with data from a new Gallup poll, authored by Lizzie Crocker, informs that “40 percent of women prefer a man in charge, compared to 27 percent who prefer a female boss.” The article goes on to say that “These numbers don’t exactly show a groundswell of women adopting Sheryl Sandberg’s “lean in” attitude, nor have they budged much over the last decade.”
  • This article authored by Olga Khazan and featured in The Atlantic reviews a Pew research survey that indicates “In fact, more women said they’d rather work with men than men did.” The article goes on to confirm that this dilemma gets worse – not better – with younger generations.

We have to do more to support professional women; we have to WANT to work for them.

We often have this discussion about breaking the glass ceiling and resolving pay inequities as if it is a male-driven phenomenon, but clearly it isn’t. From what I can tell, it is very much, or at least equally, a female-driven phenomenon.
When women say to women: we want you to be promoted and to get paid more, but we just don’t want to work for you, we are part of the problem.
I posit that until women actually want to work with and for other women, these statistics will not change. Until women stop viewing leadership as a mostly masculine concept, these statistics will not change. Unless women match words to deeds and develop supportive workplace relationships with professional women, these statistics will not change. Until women report at least an equal preference for working with and for other women as they do for men, nothing will change.
Why? Because of supply and demand. Women increasingly make up more and more of the professional workforce. We have the dominant voice, and our voice and actions are sending the message that men should be in charge. So long as the employees themselves prefer to work for men, wouldn’t it stand to reason that more and more men would be elevated to positions of authority and get paid more for the privilege? I think so.

It’s not just male bosses that women prefer; women prefer male colleagues in general.

Why would we ask organizations to design and administer proactive measures to develop female executives and promote diversity if we don’t. Women are reporting they prefer working with men in all position levels and capacities.

Questions I ask to assess whether some of the resistance to women comes from one or more of these factors:

I think it’s fair to say we can’t explain all of this away by pointing the finger at organizational policies and male dominated practices without at least looking at what’s going on between women that creates this result.In hopes of getting some answers and feedback from you, the readers, I pose the following questions. These are questions we don’t tend to discuss in the workplace, but maybe we need to start.
  1. Professional jealousy – especially when the other woman gets promoted fast beyond us or gets her work and projects noticed more than others. Do women find that they are competing with other women for professional recognition and acknowledgement and find it difficult to be happy for what we view as the competition?
  2. Limited opportunities – Since we are competing for such limited roles, are we intentionally or unintentionally backbiting and sabotaging one another because we perceive there is not enough for all of us?
  3. Different standards for different women – Do women have different standards for women with children and those without them? What about married versus single women – are we applying different standards?  If so, why?
  4. Discomfort working with smart, beautiful women – History shows that men didn’t take beautiful women seriously, but is that still the case, or is this now more a women on women problem? Are women “still” viewing the workplace as a dating pool and competing for male attention? When a women is beautiful, are women the ones questioning her competence and intelligence and, hence, showing her less respect?
  5. The marriage and motherhood factors – Do women look negatively on women who are not married and/or not mothers? Is there a problem working for or with women who don’t have aspirations for marriage or motherhood?  If so, why?
  6. Balancing politeness and assertiveness – If the woman is polite and friendly, do we view her as too polite and too friendly, but when she is assertive and direct, are we viewing her as tempermental, above herself, or even bitchy?

I could go on, but the ultimate question here is –

How do we overcome inherent gender biases that not only men have – but women also have – against women? As it stands today, both men and women report a preference for working for men and with men. So long as this stands, we can’t expect that more women will advance to the c-suite, and we surely can’t expect that the inequalities in pay and promotional opportunities will increase.

You tell me –

  • What is your take on the questions I outlined above?
  • Do you have a preference of working for men over women? Why or why not?
  • Is working with and for women really different than with men?
  • We know the preference bias exists, but why do you think this happens and what should we do about it?

Terina Allen
CEO, ARVis Institute
International Speaker | Strategist | Management Consultant | Educator | Author

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