Why Female Bosses Matter

Posted October 1, 2012 by Marcy Twete in On the Ladder

Hollywood has worked long and hard to create the archetype of the terrible female boss. For 30 years in movies, women are notoriously difficult to work for, hard to communicate with, and generally hard headed. In Baby Boom, they called Diane Keaton’s character “the tiger lady.” But is this archetype a fair characterization of the female supervisor?

A new study has emerged from Harvard Business School examining the effect of same-sex bosses on employees. “Looking Up and Looking Out: Career Mobility Effects of Demographic Similarity Among Professionals” gives incredible insight in specific industries — those in “up and out” businesses like law and CPA firms. And to save you from having to read the full academic study, we’re breaking down the most important points for you.

  • Having a female boss does mean women beneath her rise more quickly in a firm.
  • More women within a company also means more women leave that same company.
  • The same is true in both instances for men who supervise men, and men who work in companies with more men than women.

So how can you either be a great female boss or rely on your female boss without getting lost in the shuffle?

For female bosses:

  • Of course, as a woman, it’s natural for you to want to lead, nurture, and potentially promote women. But be careful not to promote someone just because they’re female and remind you of yourself. Instead, look for women who are exceptional to promote and mentor.
  • Do your best to eliminate competition and instead build a strong team. It is in the most competitive environments that women leave most often — for another job that has a better path for them or to a company with less competition that looks just like them. To keep competition from impairing your team, give them a reason to work together to create success for your company. Provide incentives based on teamwork and collaboration.
  • Give your team good examples. Use yourself as an example of someone who can succeed and get ahead within your business — but don’t be selfish in your examples. Also introduce your female employees to other leaders, both inside outside of your firm. Give them opportunities to attend events with powerful women and give them the chance to give back with board service and other volunteer opportunities.

For employees with female bosses:

  • See your boss as a role model, whether you want to or not. Even if you dislike your boss or don’t want to follow in her footsteps, seeing her path as viable for you and exploring the options she chose could be beneficial to your career.
  • Recognize whether or not you want to sit in your boss’ seat, or if you’re looking for another way to grow. Be honest with yourself and your boss about your goals. How can anyone help you to grow if they don’t know what you want to grow into?
  • Ask your boss for connections. This may seem contrary to popular belief, as many would think this looks like networking to get out. But this isn’t always the case. Saying to your boss, “I want to grow and learn from other powerful women in our industry — women who have different experiences than I have — to make me better at my job here.” Asking for her connections can show initiative and provide you with much-needed trust from your boss’ trusted partners.

Female supervisory relationships can be incredibly powerful catalysts to enhance your career. But use them wisely, or you might find yourself in the middle of The Devil Wears Prada.

About the Author

Marcy Twete

Marcy Twete is a career fundraiser turned corporate responsibility executive, a career and networking expert and the author of the book "You Know Everybody! A Career Girl’s Guide to Building a Network That Works."