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Female Bosses Are No Longer Disliked (Maybe)

Vivia Chen

April 11, 2013

ElizI.Darnley_stage_3I am not sure I totally buy this, but I'll let you decide. According to a post in the Harvard Business Review blog, the "likability penalty" that women supposedly face as they ascend the corporate ladder is no longer a factor.

So here's the news flash: You can be a boss lady and not be automatically cast as a bitch. Awesome.

Using responses from 9,500 male and 5,000 female leaders, consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman developed a "liability index." Their conclusion:

While, certainly, some individual women may find themselves disliked as they move up the organization, our aggregate data show the opposite is more common—that male leaders are perceived more negatively as they rise, whereas women generally maintain their popularity throughout their entire careers.

Did you hear that? Not only are female leaders no longer disdained, but they are more popular than their male counterparts! I know, I know, you're going to tell me that proves that women make better bosses. But don't get too carried away. As the authors note, women exceeded men on the likability index by a mere 3 percent.

Ultimately, what counts for both female and male bosses, contend the authors, is how their business performance measures up:

If you plot overall perceived leadership effectiveness against likability, you discover that the greater the perceived effectiveness of leaders—male or female—the higher their score on the likability index. Coupling this with our past studies, which show a high correlation between perceived leadership effectiveness and such critical measures of business outcomes as profitability, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, and productivity, convinces us that people like effective leaders who produce superior results, no matter what their gender.

Of course, it makes perfect sense that what counts is business outcome—essentially, whether the business made or lost money under the leader's watch. Indeed, what else could it be?

Still, that doesn't address whether male and female leaders are judged differently during the course of their jobs.

Take Marissa Mayer. I have no doubt that she will be hailed as a terrific leader if she turns Yahoo! Inc. into a Silicon Valley darling. But until she gets Yahoo to a better place, she will continue to be picked apart for her leadership style. She's been getting a lot of heat for her decision to abolish off-site working arrangements. While I totally disagree with her position, I also think she got more flak for it than a male CEO would have under similar circumstances. And let's not forget all the grief Mayer got for her decision to return to work only weeks after giving birth to her first child.

Yes, I think female leaders are held under closer scrutiny. Maybe it's because we expect them to be more humanistic. Maybe it's because they are still so novel that we look closely at every move they make. Whatever.

That said, we all know that nothing succeeds like success—no matter the sex of the leader. Until they reach the finish line, though, women better have a tough stomach.

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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected].


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Carol, what on earth are you thinking? What if a boss said "I once had all female employees and it was a nightmare. I will never hire a woman again!" The problem is the extreme overgeneralization. Some people are great to work with, some people are terrible. Male or female.

Marissa Mayer got more heat for abolishing the work-at-home policy than a guy would have gotten? Plz. Only if you don't count as heat billion-dollar class-action lawsuits.

I just worked for a women run, women dominate law firm and it was a totally nightmare! They were brat dolls mean girls club. i know work for a male attorney. I will never work for a woman again.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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