Rebecca Kamm

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Rebecca Kamm: Why do women prefer male bosses?

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Are you a woman? Do you have a boss? If yes, is your boss a man - and if no, would you rather she were?

Meryl Streep plays up to the Queen Bee Theory in The Devil Wears Prada.
Meryl Streep plays up to the Queen Bee Theory in The Devil Wears Prada.

When asked this question recently by UK fashion brand Hobbs, more than a third of 2,500 women aged 18 and upwards said yes, they'd prefer a male boss.

It's not the first time male bosses have come up trumps: In 2010, associate business professor Edmondson Bell surveyed her M.B.A. students and found 90 per cent of the women preferred a male manager. The year prior, a One Poll survey found two thirds of women preferred a man to be in charge. There are more where they come from, but you get the gist: a significant chunk of female employees would rather a man ran the show.

But why?

Chief executive of Hobbs Nicky Dulieu, who told the Telegraph she ran the survey to better understand the working women who frequent her store, says it's our own fault - that we lack confidence in ourselves and each other:

"Women in management positions can show less of their personalities. We hide our natural personalities, and need more confidence. When I realised that being 'me' wasn't a bad thing in business - that I'm not the toughest or always right - it was a good thing for me. There is so much pressure on women to be superhuman, they have no personality in the process."

Oddly though, Dulieu's survey also showed that female bosses scored higher in three out of the four attributes most appreciated in a leader: Good communication, listening, and organisation. They were scores given by the same participants, which means that - in theory, at least - female bosses should have been preferred by almost everyone.

The very fact they're not is a clear indication there's more to it than the (rather strange) claim of "no personality". Indeed, there is a more complex factor at play - and it's society's propagation of "Queen Bee Syndrome", a female leadership theory from the 1970s based on the thought that women in positions of power are, by nature, inclined to keep their female subordinates down.

The term was coined following a 1974 study on the impact of the women's movement in the workplace. A more recent, oft-cited study backed up the idea, concluding that: "Women are more likely than men to assess female candidates as 'less qualified' than male candidates when they are presented with applications for promotion", and: "Women are also more prone to .... assess [other women] as more controlling than men in their management style".

The problems with the Queen Bee Theory are manifold:

Firstly, it's still just a theory. Anecdotally, you'll find employees the world over find their "bosses" insufferable for one reason or another regardless of their gender. And on a quantitative level, other studies have found that it's women who are more likely to help female employees get ahead in their careers (notably through mentoring).

Secondly, any discussion of the Queen Bee Theory needs to come hand-in-hand with a look at why it happens, if it does indeed happen with enough frequency to be deemed a phenomenon. And it feels pretty obvious to me: When there are fewer women in senior positions, when the space made available for women in management is severely limited, you get a culture of scarcity amid female employees. It becomes "One for one, instead of one plus one", as The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Drexler puts it.

In other words, women, through no fault of their own, are forced to "fight" over crumbs. Rivalry is intensified as a result of external discrimination rather than an inherent cattiness. Of course, it's far easier and more fun - both for the media and everyday misogynists - to go with the latter. Women tearing each other down is entertainment; looking at causation is not.

All of which encourages female employees to be fearful of female bosses, even if they're not aware of the Queen Bee Theory in obtuse academic terms. They don't need to be: the everyday rhetoric around female bosses infects our thinking, as do unhelpful representations of Queen Bees in mainstream pop culture. (Ice queen Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, Sigourney Weaver as a soulless executive in Working Girl, and Vanessa Williams in Ugly Betty to name just a few.)

Former UK Apprentice contestant Katie Hopkins said recently: "I much prefer to work for a man. They operate in rational, quantitative, measurable terms." This perception is strong. And it's strengthened by thousands of years of men as the only bosses; a cultural framework that's stitched together "bossiness" and "masculine" with the resolute glue of time. Because relatively speaking, of course, female bosses are still new. And our fresh discomfort is evident in the salacious mythology spun around them, reflected back at us by the likes of Dulieu's study and its miserable statistics.

Still, there's hope yet: younger participants in the Hobbs' survey, those aged between 18 and 24, actually preferred a female boss to a male one. Powerful evidence that the kids, they're alright. And that aspiring female bosses probably will be, too.

Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter.

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