She the boss?

Female bosses are often projected as cold-hearted, high-functioning sociopaths, but is there even a grain of truth in this gender-specific trash?
Last Updated 18 March 2019, 19:30 IST

The other day, a friend was complaining about how her boss is making her work life hell without any apparent reason. Nodding my head sympathetically, I asked if her boss had the ‘Alpha Woman Syndrome’. “No, she has ‘Awful Woman Syndrome’,” said my friend dryly.

How casually we bracket women bosses, don’t we? All of us are guilty of it — the careless labelling, the rampant stereotyping, the subtle mockery, the snide remarks, the sexist jokes… the works. The name-calling is not restricted to (not so) friendly banter among colleagues and friends; popular culture is equally, if not more, responsible for the persistent image of women bosses as cold-hearted, high-functioning sociopaths.

Recall Meryl Streep as the icy Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, the vicious Demi Moore in Disclosure, or the ruthless Margaret Tate played by Sandra Bullock in the 2009 movie The Proposal. Bollywood, too, has its share of predatory and pitiless queen bees. All these over-the-top portrayals and off-the-cuff stereotyping have coalesced together to make the lady boss into a sort of urban legend. But is there a grain of truth hidden within this pile of gender-bender trash? Or is this the stink that continues to rise from centuries of misogyny and male supremacy?

Be a cutthroat or else…

American Psychologist Peggy Drexler, who is writing a book on the failures of feminism, believes men also play a part by often treating women unfairly while they are struggling on the lower rungs of the ladder. “This makes them feel they have to be ruthless to succeed in what is still largely a man’s world,” she writes. She calls this the ‘cycle of learned behaviour’ where you end up treating others in the same way you were treated yourself.

In fact, until recently, many international surveys found that both men and women prefer men to lord over them in offices than women, though the percentages have narrowed over the decades. Unfortunately, India-specific surveys of this sort are hard to come by.

In a 2017 Gallup poll, for the first time ever since the company began measuring Americans’ gender preferences for their boss, 55% of the respondents said their boss’s gender made no difference to them. This latest result is certainly not an indication that women bosses are suddenly being considered kind and generous but is rather a mirror to the changing attitudes to women at the workplace. About time too, one should think!

Is toxic masculinity to blame?

Neha Bagaria, founder and CEO of JobsForHer, an online portal for women who are looking to restart their careers post-life events like marriage and motherhood, believes the bias arises simply because there are not enough women at the workplace, especially in leadership positions. “Since people are not used to seeing women at the top of the ladder, they sub-consciously associate leadership with ‘masculine traits’,” she feels.

Neha has a revealing real-life anecdote that could well be a scene out of one of those toxic-masculinity movies. Early in her career, Neha was to present a business plan to a jury to win a ‘cool HR start-up’ award. Predictably, the first thing the all-male middle-aged jury said when they looked at her team was, “Ah, so many pretty ladies.”

“It irked me but I ignored it and dove into my pitch,” she narrates. Fidgeting throughout her presentation, the jury perked up only when she happened to mention that she had worked in her husband’s family business for five years before taking a break, and now she is keen on building her own venture. “Ah, so your husband is behind this!” “This was the answer they were looking for…they wanted an assurance that a powerful man was behind my start-up and so it might survive. They left me with a feeling that I was worthless without a man backing me,” she recalls.

Women are judged for what they wear, how they walk, whether they are single,  emotional... everything.
Women are judged for what they wear, how they walk, whether they are single, emotional... everything.

Queen bees of cliché kingdom

Lalitha Shetty’s experience has been quite unlike Neha’s and hearteningly so. A senior director in HR at Omega Healthcare, Lalitha says, unusually enough, most of her mentors, champions and door-openers have been women, and bosses at that. “I have worked with the best of women bosses and they have taught me everything I know today about being determined and ambitious,” she says.

She agrees wholeheartedly with Neha that stereotypes persist because, for many, working under a woman is still a novel experience. “We continue to treat old tropes like ‘a woman is a woman’s worst enemy’ and ‘women are the most difficult to work with’ as gospel truths. The reality is very different.”

Lalitha blames popular culture for what she calls its ‘ghastly portrayal’ of women at the top. “Not only do they stereotype women but also caricature the way we do our job. This constant misrepresentation greatly undermines women leaders,” she says scathingly. As Neha says, “We do not fully realise how these glaring gender biases have been deeply normalised and accepted.”

I am not a sexist but…

Precisely why women bosses often find themselves in situations that could be funny if they were not so annoying. Mumbai-based Sadiya Khan who heads Akund, a well-known PR agency, says she does not completely disagree that women bosses can be “hyper and aggressive” at times. “But that’s because they have much more on their plate when compared to male bosses,” she says. Sadiya makes a valid point about the constant and mostly sub-conscious judging of women. “I have also had many crazy bosses in my career and some of them have been women. The difference is, when it is a crazy male boss, we complain that he is crazy and live with it. But if it happens to be a woman, we not only whine that she is crazy but also rapidly come to the conclusion that all women are!”

For Sadiya, the most frustrating aspect of being a woman boss is being constantly judged for unconnected matters. And most of these pronouncements begin with the prefix, ‘I am not sexist but…’ “We are judged for what we wear, how we walk, whether we are single, emotional... everything. God forbid if you are beautiful — the immediate assumption is that you have succeeded because of your beauty and not your work!”

Speaking to women leaders gives but just a glimpse of how difficult the journey to the top still is for women. Their experiences may have been different but all of them feel the need for women to be more supportive of each other, especially at the workplace — an important first step in realising the larger dream of a
society that does not look at leadership skills through the gender lens.

Evidently, women (and men) have a long way to go. Till such time though, queen bee, alpha woman, ice lady — the clichés will continue to rule.

(Published 18 March 2019, 19:30 IST)

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