Ask some people who have never worked for a woman why they wouldn’t want to and you’ll hear a familiar litany of sexist tropes: Female bosses are unqualified; they’re unlikable; they’re too cold or too weak; they’re bad for other women; they’re moody; they’re bitches. Many of the negative narratives about Hillary Clinton closely mirror negative narratives about female bosses.
A 2013 Gallup poll found that Americans who were offered their choice of boss would, if they had a gender preference at all, choose a male boss over a female boss by 12 points.
This, even though the 30% of Americans who work for a woman “are as likely to prefer having a female boss as a male one.”
I’ve always been perplexed and annoyed by the persistent bias against female bosses. It has certainly not been my experience that female bosses are anything like the stereotypes that plague them. I’ve had multiple female bosses, and I have loved working for all of them.
My first job out of college started as a temporary position at a reception desk. When I started, Helene, the firm’s only female vice-president, was traveling out of the office for a few days. I was warned—repeatedly—that Helene was a dragon lady, a “bitch on wheels,” a holy terror. The nicest way it was put to me is that she was “difficult.” By the time she was due back in the office, I’d been warned about her so many times, in so many blunt and nasty ways, that I was, frankly, terrified of her.
Helene returned to the office one morning, an hour late as I would discover was her habit. She was a beautiful, fashionable, confident woman. She introduced herself brusquely, but welcomed me to the team. I was intimidated by the sheer force of her presence, but she seemed nice enough. I waited for the other shoe to drop, for the dragon lady to reveal herself.
That day never came.
Within a few months, I was working directly for Helene. She was tough. She had high expectations of me. But she was also an incredibly generous mentor. I was eager to learn, and she was keen to teach me.
And within five years, I was the director of her department, and I had my own office overlooking Lake Michigan. From reception to an executive office at record speed. And it was in no small part because of Helene’s eminent willingness to teach, support, and empower me.
The thing is, Helene could indeed be “difficult.” But not with me. She was “difficult” with the male executives who treated her terribly, with the male staff who undermined her authority. She was “difficult” with people who treated her, the only female executive at the firm, fundamentally differently than they treated the men.
Funny that I developed a reputation for being “difficult,” too.
This has been my experience working for and with “difficult” women. I’m sure there are bad female bosses in the world; of course there are. But lots of what supposedly constitutes a “difficult” female boss, or colleague, is frequently a reflection of dynamics to which she’s reacting.
Dynamics like the one in which people reject female bosses, instead of rejecting workplace sexism.
I’ve long noticed that the more I am warned about a female colleague before I meet her, the more likely I am to like her. A lot.
This was also my experience with Hillary Clinton, once I started getting to “know” her via deep-diving into her history and career. All of the narratives I’d heard about her, some of which I assumed to be true, fell away in fluttering confetti of discreditation.
When I have spoken to people who’ve worked for her—women and men, white and people of color, queer and straight—they have all told me the same, to a person: She is kind. She is an incredibly thoughtful boss. The monster of infamy never appears.
Every woman for whom I’ve worked has had a reputation as such a monster. And not a single one of them has been anything but lovely. Challenging, smart, supportive. Intolerant of being demeaned.
Maybe that last one looks monstrous to people doing the demeaning.
There are people who want a male boss, given the choice. With no other context, no idea of what kind of boss that man would be. They just want a man.
But there are more people who either prefer female bosses or have no preference either way. Even though we don’t generally talk about presidents like bosses, even when we foolishly talk about the country as a corporation, I expect those numbers matter. And I expect they will work in Hillary’s favor.
It’s a dwindling number of folks who react to the thought of a female president with the same sort of petulant resistance of a child hollering, “You’re not the boss of me!”
And an increasing number of people who appreciate a woman who can deftly navigate all the barriers put in her way as she petitions to be their leader. Like a boss.
(AP Photo/Kevin Lamarque, Pool, File)