Female Bosses: Angels or Demons – How Are They Perceived (Part I)

I once had this male friend who used to track his boss’s moods on the calendar. His boss was a woman. He wanted to track her ‘PMS Phase’ to stir clear of trouble. I used to get annoyed with this and told him many a times that it is unfair, he continued following that rule.

It’s difficult to be a woman in the corporate world and then when you are a ‘boss’ the difficulty multiplies manifolds. When a woman who is a boss, takes her team to task on a particular day, it is more often than not blamed on her PMS cycle and/or hormonal issues. I wonder how many times you have tried to reason with a male boss’s outburst at work with similar hormonal imbalances. A matter of fact is that why should any person in a leadership position have explanation for her/him to take the team’s case in the scenario when they haven’t performed

There are very few bosses that are liked, whether or not they are likable in the real world, someone you report in to is most of the times too intimidating to be liked. To top that, having a woman to report in to, who is commanding a team that is primarily male, may be more difficult. Most men are so deeply conditioned, no matter what culture they come from, to look at women as inferior beings that they have to make an effort to think otherwise and then accept the fact that it is a woman that is indeed in command. It is very rare that men would effortlessly accept a woman in the lead and extend the same respect that they would to a male boss. I would go on a limb and say that this is the case with women themselves as well. A lot of women would accept a male boss far more effortlessly than they would a female boss.

In my experience, I have had two female bosses. The first female boss was at the very start of a career when I started as an Assistant Art Director in the big bad world of Bollywood. I really adored her for the way she conducted herself and how full of talent she was. But things didn’t end very well between us; I guess I would never know what really happened there, as I never got to speak with her before we ended that employment. Bollywood really is a world where misunderstandings sprout out of nowhere and it doesn’t operate as a corporate environment where you have the liberty of speaking your mind, most of the times. The second female boss that I attribute a lot of my learning and working style to was when I started working for my first MNC and made the transition to Business Development and Communication. She is one woman I still thank for teaching me so much and I am grateful that she was the kind of boss who would lead from the front and make you want to believe in yourself and learn to be better at what you do. She was a true inspiration. Both of these women that I worked with have had a deep impact on what I am today and I am thankful that I had an opportunity to have bosses like them. Since then I have lead teams and haven’t faced any issue of judgment or defiance despite being a woman leader. Not overtly at least. I do remember one incidence of insubordination, from many years ago, surprisingly from a woman where she preferred reporting to a male super boss than her immediate reporting manager that was a woman, me. But I guess we have nutcases in all spheres of life.

Coming back to how women are perceived as bosses, I spoke to a few people and though most people preferred to be anonymous, I had a mixed bag of responses. Ketan Pandit, from the technology sector says, “My first and third bosses were ladies. And yes there is a difference in how they were perceived. While the first one was an all out all about work hard and play harder types, the third one was a hard task-master. Both were awesome at their jobs, excellent networkers and dependable. They rose like superstars amongst their peers. But yes there was a difference in how they were perceived when compared with their male peers.” Upon asking him if he thought he knew better than his bosses just because he was a man, he explained”, In my case, with both my women bosses, they always got their A game to the table. They were way smarter and hard working than anyone I knew at such close quarters. This inspired me too.” He is glad he got to work with such inspirational women in his career. Similarly most of the men I spoke with from the digital or technology driven industries shared this view.

One individual was honest enough to share his views on female bosses. From the engineering industry, he says, “I cannot work under a woman. I know women are doing well in life and all that. But some industries are beyond them, and engineering is one such industry. I believe I would have functioned better and life would be easier if I had a male boss. Maybe it’s just me but I find it difficult to report to a woman. She also isn’t that good with the subject matter knowledge.” He goes on to say, “Her PMSing around is the worst part of working with her.” Wanting to rip the man’s head off for the high concentration of patriarchy dripping from his response, I calmly heard his point of view. In consideration of his background, he is from a small town with a mother and wife who are homemakers, I doubt if he had any strong female influences in his life. So, his resentment has a basis, this however is no justification for his sentiment. He still holds on to archaic views about women in position of power. This individual is at the moment moving onto another assignment having worked under the current woman boss only for a few months and chosen to quit the company than continue under her.

A marketing manager from the real estate industry who reports to a woman boss says, “Very few women manage to make it to the top especially in an industry like Real Estate which is a male dominated industry. There are not many female leaders. Flipside is few women who rise in power here are also more eager to maintain/keep the position which sometimes results in them becoming a bit rigid.” Upon asking if he would have preferred a male boss to his current boss he explains, “There is either a good boss or a bad boss. It can be a he or a she. Based on my experiences, I can say female bosses are usually more compassionate and unbiased than male bosses, which is a good leadership trait. They understand the importance of work/life balance. However female bosses have a tendency of being rigid and getting into micro-management unlike male bosses, which may not always be good.”

Despite most men saying that they have never attributed their women boss’s outbursts to periods or PMS, the women who I spoke with say that the coffee machine gossips are witness to many men leaving a casual ‘she must be PMSing’ comment every now and then. In one specific incident when a woman leader was being a hard taskmaster (mistress?) on her team for sales performance, people discussed her hormonal shots for trying to conceive a baby more than the fact that the team was in reality not achieving the projected targets and that is the reason why she was hard on them. She was after all facing the firing squad from the higher management.

Although I spoke with a substantial sample size and got feedback from a cross industry male work force the conclusion according to me is that industries that are more modern/new-age like media, technology and service industry do not see gender as a cause of resentment towards leaders. Women are equally welcome and respected as their male counterparts. However, industries that are more ‘masculine’ in nature do not warm up to women in position of power. There is also a strong influence of the individual team member’s personal conditioning and family background. The more urbanized the male is, the lesser the differentiation in gender profiling. However, the casual sexism is still rampant no matter what background or industry an individual works in. This casual sexism is, unfortunately, brought about by both sexes.

In part two of this article I would explore the other side of the coin that is from the women themselves who are managing teams. How easy or difficult it is for them to deal with situations that are thrust at them at work and how pertinent is their gender when handling teams.


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