Skip to main content

More people prefer a male boss, but gender gap is narrowing

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
November 14, 2013 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • After a CNN column on women and work, many commenters said they prefer working for men
  • New Gallup survey finds more Americans still choose a male boss, but the gap is narrowing
  • In survey, 23% said they prefer working for a woman, the highest number in study's history
  • A double standard contributes to the gender gap, say experts on women in the workplace

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- "My last boss was a woman. All she did was micromanage everyone."

"Every woman boss I've ever had was extremely passive-aggressive in their leadership."

"It (was) much easier being managed by a male because he didn't put up with the pettiness or the gossip."

Sorry, ladies of the working world. Those are comments we received in response to my recent piece about how companies with more women in C-suites and corporate boards do better financially.

But so many commenters said they absolutely preferred working for a man, we knew we had to explore the "why" behind that sentiment.

Then this week, the Gallup organization added some numbers -- and fuel -- to the debate.

'I'm not surprised'

In telephone interviews with a random sample of 2,059 adults, Gallup found that Americans still prefer a male boss over a female, with 35% choosing to work for a man and 23% saying they prefer women supervisors. It's the highest-ever number recorded for women bosses since Gallup has been asking.

Tech CEO benefits from being an outsider
Smith: There's 'history of inherent bias'
Sandberg: Women must toughen up

When you compare these results to the 1953 responses -- that's when Gallup first asked this question -- the gap has narrowed significantly. In 1953, 66% chose a male boss and 5% picked a female one, a huge gap that has been reduced to a 12-point difference today.

"I think it's great to see that trend, so I'm very encouraged by it, but I'm not surprised that it's still a 2-to-1 ratio of people preferring to work for men than women," said sociologist and workplace consultant BJ Gallagher, who has written several books, including a best-seller on diversity called "A Peacock in the Land of Penguins."

Topping the list of reasons, according to Gallagher, is the fact that men still have more power in the workplace than women.

"If you had your druthers, you'd rather work for somebody who has some influence, some power, some clout, some status and that's true for men and women," Gallagher said.

"It trickles down so that if you work for a powerful boss, you're a little bit more powerful. Your whole department is seen in a more positive light if the boss is a powerful (and) influential person," she said.

'How to Tell a Male Boss From a Female Boss'

In conversations with Gallagher and other experts, it's clear another factor is at work -- the real stereotypes that exist about working for a woman.

General Motors, No.7 on this year's overall Fortune 500 list, promoted Mary Barra to serve as the new chief executive officer on Tuesday, December 10. Barra will serve as the first female head of a major U.S. automaker. General Motors, No.7 on this year's overall Fortune 500 list, promoted Mary Barra to serve as the new chief executive officer on Tuesday, December 10. Barra will serve as the first female head of a major U.S. automaker.
Top women in 2013 Fortune 500 list
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
Top women in 2013 Fortune 500 list Top women in 2013 Fortune 500 list
Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, right, chats with Lisa Stone at the 2013 BlogHer conference in Chicago. Sandberg is among the highest-paid female executives in the country. Click through the gallery for more top women earners: Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, right, chats with Lisa Stone at the 2013 BlogHer conference in Chicago. Sandberg is among the highest-paid female executives in the country. Click through the gallery for more top women earners:
Highest-paid women
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
Photos: Highest-paid women Photos: Highest-paid women
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's photo spread in Vogue magazine has proven controversial, with some saying it detracts from the 3,000-word article that focuses on her successes and vision in a male-dominated tech world. The profile describes Mayer as an "unusually stylish geek." Take a look at other photos of her through the years. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's photo spread in Vogue magazine has proven controversial, with some saying it detracts from the 3,000-word article that focuses on her successes and vision in a male-dominated tech world. The profile describes Mayer as an "unusually stylish geek." Take a look at other photos of her through the years.
Marissa Mayer: Proud geek
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
Marissa Mayer: Proud geek Marissa Mayer: Proud geek

"It's an old stereotype that women may not be good bosses so when that happens, it sticks," said Susan Nierenberg, vice president of global marketing and corporate communications for Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on expanding opportunities for women in business. "Because the stereotype is in the water, and there are fewer women leaders than men, you may remember the woman who treated you badly and say, 'Oh yeah, I remember her.' And it reinforces the stereotype.

"Perception is not reality, and stereotypes are perceptions."

Gallagher has created a list titled "How to Tell a Male Boss From a Female Boss" with examples of perceived gender differences -- "A male boss is assertive; a female bossy is bossy" and "A male boss is attentive to details; a female boss is picky."

Opinion: Are female leaders too cheerful for their own good?

"There is a double standard," said Gallagher, who also wrote "Everything I Need to Know I Learned From Other Women." "The same exact behavior in a male boss is seen as a plus, and the same behavior in a female boss gets seen as a negative."

For instance, Gallagher said if a male boss "gets agitated and slams his fist down on the table and goes, 'I want this done by 3 o'clock this afternoon,' everyone goes, 'Ooh, take charge kind of guy.'"

If a woman does the same thing, Gallagher said, people are likely to say, "Oh, what a bitch."

"So the same tone of voice, the same words, the same body language, the same everything gets filtered through our stereotypes and assumptions about how various groups should behave," she said.

The 'token woman' issue

Fueling the stereotypes, Gallagher and leaders from Catalyst said, are environments with few women in leadership positions.

"When there's going to be a token woman, one woman is going to make it to the top, what does this do?" said Ilene Lang, president and CEO of Catalyst, during an interview last month.

"Does that encourage anybody to support women? Does it encourage women to support other women? It's a culture that will encourage women to fight with other women or to discourage other women."

But when the culture of the organization focuses on mentorship and sponsorship, and there are more women in leadership positions, that "Queen Bee myth" of women not helping women gets busted, Lang said.

Read: Sheryl Sandberg at BlogHer: Not every woman has to be a CEO

In fact, a report by Catalyst found that 73% of women who received career development support are helping to support and develop other women, versus 30% of men.

"Our research shows that women not only sponsor and support other women, but that they do other men as well, and they really do pay it forward to a huge amount," Lang said.

Ex-federal prosecutor Karen Shaer says of bosses: \
Ex-federal prosecutor Karen Shaer says of bosses: "I'm looking more for qualities that can be shared by men and women."

That's been the experience of Karen Shaer, one of the women I profiled last month. Shaer is senior executive vice president and general counsel of the legal services firm Garden City Group, where eight of the company's 15 executives are women.

"It could be that some women tend to be more critical, but I haven't seen that," Shaer said. "I've seen more of the efforts for women to be supportive of other women."

The mom of two said, "It's infectious. When women help other women, then the women they help (have) a role model in that regard. And then ... if (they) develop and grow into a position of power or authority, I expect they will be more likely to turn around and treat someone that way."

'I've had good experiences with both'

Shaer, a former federal prosecutor, said she doesn't have a preference -- she's had good experiences with female and male bosses.

CNN\'s Kelly Wallace says the best and worst bosses of her career were women.
CNN's Kelly Wallace says the best and worst bosses of her career were women.

"I'm looking more for qualities that can be shared by men and women," she said. "I'm looking for someone who's a good communicator, who's going to be someone who is a good teacher, as well as be supportive, someone who is open to giving opportunities for growth and development and that can be provided by a man or a woman."

Complaints we saw from readers that women micromanage, hold grudges and are unable to make decisions didn't reflect Shaer's experience, she said.

"Maybe I've just been blessed with very good bosses, supervisors," she said. "It has not been my experience that women do those things. I think my experience maybe has been contrary to that."

Read: Work-from-home moms face a juggling act, too

When I asked an unscientific sampling in my Facebook community about the new survey's findings, I received a handful of responses, the majority with positive comments about working for women.

"With one notable exception, all my great bosses have been women," said Kim Kennedy, a television news producer in New York. "The best ones are collaborative and intuitive, give you some room to accomplish things beyond your assignment or job description, and many have been good mentors as well."

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

On the other side is Joy Lipkin, a college educator in New York who also works with young special-education students.

"Men are more straightforward, less emotionally attached (I mean this in a good way)," Lipkin said on Facebook. "Women hold grudges and seek vengeance on their subordinates. That's been my experience."

A father of two who didn't want to use his name said he reports to two women now who are "so much nicer" to work with than the male supervisors in his last job. But he added, "I think, overall, it just depends on the individual people."

I agree.

The most horrible boss I've had in my career was a woman. The most amazing, mentoring and supportive boss I've had was also a woman. I've also had good and bad male bosses.

So, like Shaer from the Garden City Group, I don't have a preference. My current boss is a woman, so, of course, these days, I lean in that direction.

Do you prefer a male or female boss? Share your thoughts in the comments, or follow Kelly Wallace on Twitter, and like CNN Living on Facebook.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
Options for meat substitutes have come a long way since Seth Tibbott's first few Thanksgivings as a vegetarian in the 1970s.
November 22, 2014 -- Updated 2112 GMT (0512 HKT)
Students unhappy with school meals are taking it out on the first lady by sharing images on social media of lunches sarcastically tagged #ThanksMichelleObama.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 0255 GMT (1055 HKT)
A Louisiana family is fighting to protect its beloved pit bull from a "vicious dogs" ordinance.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 2220 GMT (0620 HKT)
November is National Adoption Awareness Month. CNN's Michaela Pereira grew up in a family of five adopted girls in Canada and eventually reunited with her biological half-sister.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
It began for Nickolay Lamm as a question: What would Barbie look like if she had the dimensions of an average woman?
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 0216 GMT (1016 HKT)
Bill Cosby was thought of as a perceptive comedian and genial father figure. Now, that persona pairs with another, much darker image.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 1735 GMT (0135 HKT)
If you think 'my teen would never sext,' you might be mistaken. Recent studies suggest it's more common than many parents might want to admit.
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
I pictured myself graduating from college, getting a cool job and even having a cute place of my own. Instead, I wake to the early-morning sounds of my family dog barking and my parents making coffee downstairs.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Samantha Futerman and Anais Bordier tease, poke and prod each other like they've grown up together, but they didn't. Neither woman knew she had an identical twin sister until less than two years ago.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1402 GMT (2202 HKT)
A school district in Maryland has decided to remove all references to religious holidays from its school calendar, leaving some in the community frustrated.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1706 GMT (0106 HKT)
Female veterans often have a harder time finding employment than their male counterparts. But why?
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
I simply couldn't believe my eyes. At a children's party this year, I witnessed full-on "mean girl" behavior.
November 10, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Several children were sent to the hospital after being sickened by ingesting detergent pods.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1446 GMT (2246 HKT)
There are plenty of times when I literally wish I could take a hammer to the portrayal of girls and women in the media. In a new ad, a little girl gets to do just that.
November 8, 2014 -- Updated 1509 GMT (2309 HKT)
"Playing doctor" and "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" are common rites of passage in childhood sexual behavior, according to the experts.
November 6, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
A tech startup claims credit for making Alex from Target go viral, but there's skepticism about how involved it was, if at all.
November 4, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
A soft toy for cribs lets babies post pictures of themselves to social media.
November 4, 2014 -- Updated 1655 GMT (0055 HKT)
Schools are increasingly confronting a controversial question: Should they do more to monitor students' online interactions off-campus to keep them safe?
November 6, 2014 -- Updated 1656 GMT (0056 HKT)
The National Toy Hall of Fame recently inducted three new favorites into its hallowed halls. What's your favorite?
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1409 GMT (2209 HKT)
We don't know, and may never know, what led to the Washington school shooting, but we have to ask ourselves, following this tragedy, if we are doing enough to help our boys deal with difficult emotions without resorting to violence.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
The viral video of a New York woman being catcalled on the street has men asking, "So, what should I do?" The answer starts with respect.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1840 GMT (0240 HKT)
Trick-or-treating and dressing in costume have been Halloween traditions for a good long time now, but it seems we're still struggling to get it right.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 2038 GMT (0438 HKT)
Yes, there's actually corn in it. Corn syrup, if that counts.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Walmart found itself sending apology tweet after apology tweet after the Twitterverse raked it over the coals for a major goof on its website.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 2002 GMT (0402 HKT)
There aren't too many times when I'm speechless about what I consider an outrageous example of parenting. This is one of those times.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Holy crap, LeVar Burton.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 2138 GMT (0538 HKT)
Critics pounced on supermodel Gisele Bundchen for advocating a little mommy "me time" recently. When did it become a crime to admit that you -- as a parent -- put yourself first?
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Not again.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
"Breaking Bad's" drug-dealing chemistry teacher Walter White will have to stop making the sale at Toys R Us.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
I happen to agree with Renee Zellweger that all the chatter about her face is "silly." But I, and many other women I talked with via email Wednesday, would add some other choice words to the mix to describe the non-stop attention about her appearance: nasty, cruel, hurtful, invasive and sexist.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2206 GMT (0606 HKT)
I have long thought millennials, who expect flexibility in the workplace, would be the group that would bring an end to the stigma that is too often associated with flex time -- the belief that wanting a flexible work arrangement means you aren't willing to work as hard. But now I'm thinking it's going to be men who will get us there.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1140 GMT (1940 HKT)
Say it with us: Kids today have it sooooo easy.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1829 GMT (0229 HKT)
An Atlanta judge reportedly reprimanded an immigration attorney for bringing her 4-week-old to court for a hearing -- a hearing she asked the judge to reschedule because she was on her six-week maternity leave.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 1604 GMT (0004 HKT)
Monica Lewinsky tweeted for the first time. She called herself "patient zero" of cyber-bullying.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1943 GMT (0343 HKT)
Meet Shyanne Roberts, a 10-year-old competitive shooter with something to prove: "Kids and guns don't always mean bad things happen."
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1350 GMT (2150 HKT)
strawberry ghosts
We love Halloween season. Sweets. Sweaters. Sipping hot cider (maybe spiked). Halloween can certainly get you in the spirit, and nothing warms our hearts like these healthy Halloween treats that help you stay energized instead of stuck in a sugar coma.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1923 GMT (0323 HKT)
Does your baby cry during long flights, causing you to want to disappear from the glares of fellow passengers?
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2114 GMT (0514 HKT)
Ask any teen if they suffer from social media anxiety and they would probably tell you no. But the truth is getting "likes" and the fear of missing out are adding stress to teens' lives.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1313 GMT (2113 HKT)
Many photographers have taken it upon themselves to document stillborn and terminal babies' precious moments after birth.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1946 GMT (0346 HKT)
As part of the insurance coverage offered to its female employees, Facebook is paying to freeze their eggs.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1815 GMT (0215 HKT)
Amal Alamuddin was well-known in many important circles long before she snagged the world's most eligible bachelor. But Amal Alamuddin is now Amal Clooney, according to her law firm's website.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Trends in young adult fiction have shifted from wizards to glittering vampires to bloodthirsty "Hunger Games" and now, to teens coping with illnesses and realistic issues.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0056 GMT (0856 HKT)
Before he died this year, 14-year-old Martin Romero wanted to do something for his community.
cnn, parents, parenting, logo
Get the latest kid-related buzz, confessions from imperfect parents and the download on the digital life of families here at CNN Parents.
ADVERTISEMENT