“Samantha” was a highly experienced, intelligent, and savvy team leader I happened to work with years ago. She had a deep understanding of the organization, and a sparkly personality that was fun at social gatherings. Sounds good, right? But, yikes, she was one of the worst bosses I ever worked for, and my introduction to the bad female boss. 

She played favorites: She clearly liked working with men more than with women. She undermined the women who worked for her. She gave us meaningless tasks. She was extremely defensive. Criticize her once and you were on her bad list forever. 

It was a nightmare working for her. I used to lie awake nights trying to strategize about how to interact with her more effectively. After all, I’m a psychologist. I’ve worked with a lot of difficult and complicated people. But, I’ll tell you, Samantha completely defeated me. The day when I no longer had to work on her team was a day of great relief for me.

Why there are so many stories of the bad female boss

Many people have stories like this to tell — about women bosses who were impossible to work for. There is a widely-held belief that many women leaders are mean, hostile, unsupportive, and demanding, especially toward other women. There are lots of books about “mean girls” and “queen bees” and how to deal with them. 

So I was very interested when my friends, Andie Kramer and Alton Harris, told me they were writing a book about hostility between women in the workplace. Andie and Al’s previous book, Breaking Through Bias, was a brilliant examination of how to fight gender bias so women can survive and thrive in male-dominated work settings. I was curious to see what they had to say about bias and hurtful behavior between women.

How to deal with a female boss? Challenge your perception from the beginning

Spoiler alert! (Actually, the following quote comes from page xii in the introduction, so it’s not exactly a big secret.) Kramer and Harris write, “There is no empirical evidence — none, nada, nil, zero, zilch — that women have more frequent conflict in working with other women than men have in working with other men or than women and men have in working together.” They go on to report that there’s no evidence that women are meaner to other women than men are to men. In fact, there are a lot of data points that show women spend more time supporting and advocating for women than men do. 

Why?? Why do so many of us believe that women bosses are especially hard on other women, when the scientific data show otherwise? That’s what the new book, It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace, is about. Andie and Al explore a whole bunch of factors that contribute to this false perception and also provide suggestions for how we can change the narrative. I highly recommend the book for anyone who is interested in fostering women’s leadership — for themselves and for others.

Bad manager behavior is equal opportunity

Here’s another boss story for you. Early in my career I worked for “Lee.” Lee was a respected member of the community, a very experienced psychologist. Others appreciated Lee’s warm, personal communication style. 

But once again, there was another side to the story. Lee was much more comfortable working with men than with women. Petty and vengeful, Lee often talked behind people’s backs and stirred up conflicts between members of the department. 

Sounds a lot like Samantha, doesn’t it? But Lee was a man. It seems that we don’t tell those stories as often. Read It’s Not You, It’s the Workplace and you’ll understand better why we don’t.    

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