The real reason you may think your female boss is mean

Why do we find it so difficult to work for women? PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

What you need to know:

  • We have all heard takes about the female Mean Boss. She’s just about ready to bite your head off at the slightest infringement.
  • She’ll mercilessly tear into the presentation you spent half the night painstakingly preparing and when she doesn’t like the report you drew up, well, her emails will be ruthless and cut like a knife.
  • She’s the boss from hell and if you’re lucky, you’ve never met her.
  • Why do we find it so difficult to work for women? Research says it’s all in our bias.

If publicising the fact that you have a female boss doesn’t automatically prompt an apologetic barrage wondering how you manage, then you’ll certainly receive sympathetic nods commiserating your misfortune.

We have all heard takes about the female Mean Boss. She’s just about ready to bite your head off at the slightest infringement, she’ll mercilessly tear into the presentation you spent half the night painstakingly preparing and when she doesn’t like the report you drew up, well, her emails will be ruthless and cut like a knife. She’s the boss from hell and if you’re lucky, you’ve never met her.

We judge women harshly

The truth is – and this is backed up by science – our female leaders, from CEOs to politicians, face unfairly harsh judgement because of societal gender expectations that result in bias. Everyone expects a woman to be nurturing and gentle, encouraging and kind, forever smiling and more lenient than their male counterparts. These traits, while great for home-making, rarely help build a successful business or a top leader.

When Josephine Wangui graduated from university, she was thrilled when she landed her first ‘real’ job at a then competitive telecoms mobile service provider. Her excitement turned sour when she realised that the person she would soon call boss was a nightmare.

She dreaded being even a minute late because that would swiftly attract a penalty of writing an apology letter that was to be put in your file. “She’d shout at us at the top of her lungs and insult us, calling us things like manyang’au” says Josephine, who admits she’s still a little traumatised by the memory of the woman who hasn’t been her boss for many years now.

We hear lots of horror stories from men and women who go into a new job expecting mentorship and a fun, relaxed work environment from their female manager only to be met with everything from putdowns to unnecessary and emotionally-charged outbursts.

As a professional in the medical field who moved from Australia to settle back home to Kenya, Peris Wambura says she once had a female boss at the hospital she worked in who not only pegged her as an adversary from day one, she also did “everything in her power to get me fired”. When I posit to her that perhaps she may have been harbouring a sexist bias towards her boss Peris laughs. “Having had female bosses before, I don’t think I was biased considering all my bosses since I’ve been back home have been women”, states Peris passionately.

Some of us might relate to having a boss who seemingly was put on earth for the sole purpose of making our life harder. It’s the reason we laughed all the way through Hollywood blockbusters like Horrible Bosses and a favourite, The Devil Wears Prada. It’s also the reason we sympathise when a friend shares their weekly my-boss-from-hell rant. But if bad bosses truly cut across all genders why women are more vilified in this regard?

The competition

Unfortunately, the nurturer-nice-girl traits, though wonderful for homemaking and raising small humans, are of little use when you’re at the helm of a conglomerate, department or team or are trying to compete with fellow sharks to make an impact in the corporate and business world.

Constructed glass ceilings, gender stereotypes at every turn, gender pay gaps and then when you finally make it to the top – lingering imposter syndrome – are just a few of the hurdles women have to jump over to show for their impressive resumes and superb leadership skills. To that add navigating the minefield of keeping appropriate emotional distances at work, caring about their employees but not too personally, being assertive but at the same time considering everybody’s feelings…phew! Exhausting.

I recently listened to an inspiring podcast with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s who says these sexist attitudes that are rife in corporate culture could have something to do with the fact that society attributes a woman’s leadership position to hard work, help from others and sheer luck while a man’s leadership position is credited to his skill.

This prejudice especially shadows women who are leaders in (increasingly less) male-dominated fields such as ICT. Lily Muraguri-Kariuki who is the Country Manager of ICT Solutions firm, COSEKE, says she has experienced this prejudice more from men. “It’s really hard to be a woman boss and especially for an ICT firm where the majority of the people I lead are men. You have to be on your A game and do so much to prove that you can hack it,” says Lily who feels she has to work extra hard just to gain respect. “Truth be told sometimes it felt like I was going to get a nervous breakdown trying to figure out what I was doing wrong”.

On the flip side, women are also expected to be more lenient than men. Lily for instance, says because of shared experiences like motherhood and parenting, she is more empathetic than her male peers when it comes to matters like dealing with taking time off. Her female workforce knows this. She also deliberates back and forth whenever she needs to let someone go where her male counterparts don’t struggle quite as much.

Sexist labels

Psychologist and Director of Selus Consultancy, Stacey Alugo says we tend to recognise good bosses across the genders but when the traits are bad, we dwell on it if they are a woman. “We label these women as bitches, bitter women, scorned wives, women on their menses, menopausal, frustrated-sexually or those with an inability to keep their home problems at home,” says Stacey and adds, “society dictates that a leader is someone who is assertive, outspoken, confident and whose presence is felt. These qualities unfortunately, sit well only when they are applied to men but not so much when they’re applied to women. All in all, society expects women to be nice”.

Women not wanting best for others

When it comes to women facing the Bully Boss rap from their fellow women, the scarcity mind set might be to blame here. Women have been taught from a young age that there isn’t enough room for all of them at the top and so it’s easier to see fellow women as a threat.

Journalist and author of The Likeability Trap: How to Break Free and Succeed As You Are, Alicia Menendez, says women need to find ways to escape falling into stereotypical feminine roles in order to remain likeable. In the book she also examines the way likeability for women largely plays into politics.

With this, a certain incident springs to mind. Remember the perplexing ‘You Should Know People’ fiasco that led to the dismissal of DCJ Nancy Baraza in 2012? Cut to 2017, a certain Cabinet Secretary in similar fashion caused a commotion when him and his entourage in tow refused to stop for a security check at the airport. Unfortunately, the two incidences had hugely different outcomes with the former facing the wrath of angry Kenyans and losing her job, and the latter going on to hold several more, high profile positions in government (and the security lady in question being fired by KAA).

Menendez says, “Women face a double standard when it comes to being liked at work whether they are “likeable,” or if they “don’t give a damn.” We know so well that women are given one of two sets of feedback,” said Menendez. “They're either told they're too assertive, too aggressive, too comfortable with conflict, and then that has a likeability penalty. Or, they’re told they're too nice, they don't take up enough space, they don't take up enough oxygen — and those women aren't thought of as leaders.”

Women leaders also get more critical, subjective feedback than their male peers. “Most of the feedback that women receive is about the way we sit, the way we talk, the way we communicate. Some of that can be useful, but it tends to be the disproportionate amount. Consider whether or not they would give it to someone else in the office. More specifically, whether or not they'd give it to a man,” writes Menendez.

Feedback is a no-no

How many men spend time worrying about how they come off every time they yell at someone or have to give negative feedback? I’m guessing not nearly as much as women do. For Dr Esther Ndambiri, the narrative is similar. Just recently she received anonymous feedback at work telling her she needs to be more empathetic, less abrasive and more vocal in meetings!

Having previously served as a CEO and working in pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities where it is largely dominated by men both at executive and shop floor, it was not always easy to get things done. “I had to be creative in the way I would communicate”, she says, “not too soft to avoid looking timid and not too direct, to avoid looking aggressive”. She adds, “I am an outspoken, assertive person and sometimes I have been told that I am difficult to approach. In my mind I am thinking, that is the last thing I want! Yes, I strive for work to be done in time, be of acceptable quality and within budget however I want a workforce that perceives me as empathetic yet firm. A difficult line to toe as a woman.”

Ironically, turns out another reason we prefer male bosses is because we hate the stern feedback dished out by women! This too comes down to social beliefs. Studies have found that because women face expectations to come across as sensitive and undemanding, a harsh word or two from a female boss can aggravate us excessively – even when the feedback is phrased identically to the feedback given by a male manager.

How to turn back the stereotypes

When it comes to a way forward, the message is unequivocal: Training to uncover unconscious bias and a more gender inclusive workplace. When employees do not understand how bias works, they are less likely to identify it in themselves or to push back when they experience it. Sandburg suggests that HR play a role in ensuring a more gender-balanced workplace environment to begin with. “Corporate culture must be shifted to accommodate more women at work and support provided for more women making it to managerial levels.”

Stacey Aluga suggests that there needs to be an increase of women in positions of leadership more so those that will require them to carry traits like assertion, being outspoken and confidence. “This will increase society’s exposure to women in such roles, making them more common placed.”

Lily Muraguri-Kariuki who has already began to apply measures to support unbiased hiring and promotion at COSEKE, says women in leadership should definitely be at the forefront of uplifting other women. “When I joined my current employer in 2010, I found only one woman working as a receptionist with the other 11 employees being men. To date I have employed over 10 women working under me in different positions and in what were traditionally considered male positions. We need to empower our girls from a young age to build their leadership skills and teach them to compete equally with the men in any industry that they choose.”

In the case where you suspect that your boss is displaying signs of toxic behaviour, begin by asking yourself if you are looking at the situation through an unbiased lens. If so, by all means hold them to the same standard as you would if they were a man. HR Associate Sylvia Mureithi says the first step is to speak to them – even if they are unfriendly or unapproachable. “Escalating the issue up to HR is sensible but it should not come as a surprise to your boss.”

Another red flag to look out for is foul or disrespectful language although Sylvia says the signs of a toxic boss will likely be way subtler than that. “It may not be so overt but if you find that your boss seldom takes your opinions into account or doesn’t value your views, you could be dealing with a boss who feels threatened by you,” she says.