Secretarial: Women bosses? No thanks

Despite their growing numbers, female superiors are unpopular with both sexes. But are they being judged fairly?
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WHETHER YOU work for a two-person PR company or a multi-national bank, there is a stronger chance than ever that your boss is female. Indeed, of the 614 companies that responded to the latest survey by Institute of Directors Enterprises, 40 per cent have at least one female executive director on board. The problem is, claim a growing number of reports, that employees - on the whole - prefer working for men.

"Even women are uncomfortable about having a female superior," explains psychologist, David Lewis. "Despite 20 years of equal opportunities and sex discrimination legislation, my consultancy recently found that 82 per cent of men and an astounding 86 per cent of females `hate' to be subordinate to a woman."

Beverly Stone, a business psychologist for Group Dynamics, believes the reasons are historical. "Women who have made it to the top have often had to work at least twice as hard as men. The consequence is that they may have grown tough. They feel, `I've had to make it on my own with a couple of kids and no support, so you can damn well struggle too'. Men, on the other hand, have more a history of the old boys' network, taking their subordinates out to lunch and helping them to climb the ladder."

But don't such descriptions epitomise the hard Eighties, rather than the "softer" Nineties? Not necessarily, says Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, who believes that whether women bosses are favoured by their staff largely depends on the industry in question. "In, say, law and finance, where there are fewer women, they remain controlled by the predominant masculine culture. So the `queen bee' personality of the Eighties remains strong. In many instances, women bosses are one of only a handful of females and so they behave exactly like the men. However, the more women get together, the more they will feel secure to use their own management style, rather than the one expected."

Chartered psychologist, Ben Williams, agrees, emphasising that in companies where women do feel secure to manage how they choose, there tend to be excellent staff relations. "Women have always been better at communicating than men," he adds. "They have higher verbal aptitude and verbal comprehension. They are also better at using `emotional intelligence', so they can make much more understanding bosses than men."

Yet women's confidence to implement a caring, sharing management style isn't purely a question of numbers. This is evident in areas such as schools, hospitals and women's magazines, where the staffing is strongly female, yet ultimate control often remains in male hands. In these "traditional" working cultures, the "queen bee" status lives on, a fact that Sara Hill - a PA at a London Hospital - knows all too well. "The female bosses here are numerous but aggressive. It is as if they feel they have to prove their status all the time."

"Perhaps, then, for women to become good bosses, the `female' style has to be initiated from the very top of an organisation," concludes Beverly Stone, an assertion that administration assistant, Roberta Allison, agrees with. "Of all the places I have worked, it is the small companies run and owned by women where there has been the most harmony. In fact, in those organisations, the bosses are always the most fair and empathetic - better than any man."

But Dr Melanie Katzman, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of London and a specialist in gender issues at the office, believes we may be judging women unfairly. "You still have certain ingrained notions of what is proper female behaviour, and when you deviate from that there is a punishment. For example, women are often told that they are being too emotional. And often when a woman gets angry in a meeting, she's a bitch."

Staff may also be too quick to accuse female bosses of being incompetent. We have, after all, been taught for so long that business is a man's game. Legal secretary, Helen Brown, explains: "Until last year, I'd always worked for men. In fact, the only women I'd ever seen in the office were clients, or secretaries and receptionists. So it became ingrained in me that law was about men - an attitude that strongly coloured my response to getting a female boss. I think my immediate reaction was `She could mess up and then my job could be at risk too'. It's only recently that I've realised that my attitude was a result of my own prejudices."