She's the boss. So what?

The number of women managers is increasing sharply, but would the people who work for them rather have a man in charge? Ann Treneman reports

Ann Treneman
Tuesday 24 June 1997 23:02

Anna has been a secretary for many years and as such is superb at fielding difficult questions. "Do I prefer to work for a man or a woman?" she says, repeating the question again before noting that frankly, since 99 per cent of her bosses have been men, she has hardly had a choice. Then she tells me two stories.

One is about the Most Impossible Boss in the World. She is a woman, high- powered and very, very important. "Before I worked for her, three or four secretaries had fled the building in floods of tears. She was very, very overstretched. You just had to ignore her when she went into her ranting and raving mode."

The next is about the Most Irritating Boss in the World. He is a man. "He is the old-type male manager. I resent having to make cups of tea and buy birthday cards for the wife and so on. He expects his sandwiches to be bought for him, his tea to be made and absolutely all his typing done. He doesn't know one end of the computer from the other. I rather doubt if you would get a female boss with the same attitude."

Anna is not the only one to tell such tales and, as a temp for Reed Personnel Services, neither of these relationships have been lasting ones. Of the two she prefers the impossible, but many others would not. In fact many would find little to irritate in a man who likes his tea with two lumps and his dry cleaning picked up every Thursday. "Oh, I get along fine with both men and women,"says another secretary, "though I must admit I am more likely to do the odd little job for a man."

Not even the researchers know the answer to my question. Most secretaries insist it is the person, not their sex, that matters. But occasionally a survey will drop in a question or two and those tend to show that secretaries prefer to work for a man. "Competition can be an issue," says Dr Susan Vinnicombe of Cranfield School of Management in Bedfordshire and author of several books on female managers and secretaries. "A female secretary can accept that her boss has got more power and is more senior because he is a man but to accept that in a woman is a bit more difficult."

Things are getting more difficult for a lot of people these days. An Institute of Management survey last week showed a 60 per cent increase in the number of women managers since 1994. The average female manager is 37 years old and earns pounds 31,550; her male counterpart is 44 and earns pounds 35,761. A female manager, according to a survey by Queen's Business and Secretarial College, is more likely to demand flexibility from her secretary, a male to ask for frequent help with personal matters.

Beverley Stone is a corporate psychologist and she laughs out loud when I broach the subject. "I do think that a lot of women find it easier to work for men. The reason is that women are able to - now I don't want to use the word manipulate - but they are able to get their way in this more conventional role."

She thinks that most secretaries treat their male bosses either as children or as parents and that those roles feel comfortable to both. "But when they are working for a woman it is not as easy because women often treat other women as adults. They don't want to defer to you like a child or to nurture you like a parent. They want an equal who knows how to defer, which is a totally different skill," she says.

Sometimes it is just a matter of talking the same language. "You can become more friendly with a female manager. There are more barriers with a male," says Ann O'Donnell, a secretary at C&A. Andrie van der Luijt is that most rare of things - a male PA - and he says some male managers have trouble with female secretaries: "My impression was they were simply used to an all-male environment."

So here is an idea: why not test secretaries and their bosses for gender compatibility? At least then Anna could avoid her most irritating boss and others could miss the impossible nightmare. Robert McHenry, an expert at devising psychometric tests, is intrigued by the idea. "I am wondering if this might be a niche market!" he exclaims. "After all, I know from my own PA that the relationship makes all the difference to whether I get my work done that day." His PA, by the way, is most pleasant and doesn't give away a thing as she notes down my question.

The most obvious characteristic to test for would be who wants to be in control. The other one is affection (or at least that is what Dr McHenry calls it). "A lot of bosses are very insecure. They seek secretaries because they like the reassurance of somebody telling them they are doing the right thing or someone to discuss confidential matters with. In my terms this is affection and these bosses would want quite a lot of it."

Female managers tend to want to be in control and one would guess the impossible one probably scores low on the affection scale. She is an extreme example of a type who is well known in the secretarial world. "She is meticulous and very keen on detail and very hard working," says Dianah Worman of the Institute of Personnel and Development. "A lot of women who are successful have had to break through a lot of glass ceilings to get there. Their expectations are going to be high."

All of this sounds rather dated to Jane Garrett of Fasttrack, who has given talks to hundreds of companies on the changing role of secretary (and boss). She cites research from the Angela Mortimer recruitment consultancy that shows secretaries under 30 are likely to have many of the traits normally associated with managers. They feel in control, are flexible, want a career. The "executries" of the future are much more likely to work for a team.

And if Mr Irritation is old-fashioned, so is his secretary. "The office wife is very much on her way out," says Ms Garrett firmly. "Of course some men will still try to have one. But there is a sea change in office culture. In some companies now it is against company policy to ask the secretary - though they are no longer called that, usually it is group administrator - to do personal chores. The ultimate offence is to ask somebody to get your dry-cleaning. Everyone knows how to get their own coffee and their own files."

It is trendy to say that the office of the future will be more female but perhaps this is overlooking something. No one I interviewed for this article had a male secretary but surveys show that this is one point on which female and male managers do differ, with the former being much more likely to hire one (87 per cent, compared to 47 per cent). The News of the World editorial offices in east London may already be ahead of the rest of us. There, the photographic department will soon be all female except for one lone man. And he's not the boss.

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