Who's the Boss?

[Content Note: Misogyny.]

In a recent Gallup poll, respondents were asked whether, if they "were taking a new job and had their choice of a boss," would they would prefer a male boss, a female boss, or no preference. 41% had no preference, which was the highest percentage. Of those who did have a preference, male bosses were preferred over female bosses 35% to 23%. Boo.

I am constantly perplexed and annoyed by the persistent bias against female bosses. Even many feminist women will unleash a torrent of misogynist tropes at the mere mention of female colleagues: Women are terrible bosses; female colleagues are the worst; women are back-stabbing, catty, two-faced, incompetent, etc.

This has not been my experience. I have had multiple female bosses, and I have loved working for all of them.

My first job out of college started as a temporary position at a reception desk. When I started, the president (a man) and vice-president (a woman) of the firm were traveling out of the office for a few days. I was told they'd be calling in for messages, and I was warned—repeatedly—that the vice-president, Helene, was a dragon lady, a bitch, a holy terror. The nicest way it was put to me is that she was "difficult." I was admonished to be very careful about how I gave her messages to her, because she would destroy me if I made a mistake.

I made sure to provide her messages in precisely the way I'd been instructed, and she was perfectly polite to me over the phone. But, by the time she was due back in the office, I'd been warned about her so many times, in so many blunt and nasty ways, that I was, frankly, terrified of her.

Helene returned to the office one morning, an hour late as I would discover was her habit. She was a beautiful, fashionable, confident woman. She introduced herself brusquely, but welcomed me to the team. I was intimidated by the sheer force of her presence, but she seemed nice enough. I waited for the other shoe to drop, for the dragon lady to reveal herself.

That day never came.

Within a couple of months, my position had been made permanent, and I was quickly promoted to an assistant position in Helene's department. Helene was tough. She had high expectations of me. But she was also an incredibly generous mentor. I was eager to learn, and she was keen to teach me. She wanted things done a certain way, but she was open to suggestions and encouraged me to challenge her. And if I ever came up with a better way to do something, she was grateful for the idea and let me know she was proud of me. She never took credit for my ideas; to the contrary, she championed me.

By the time I left, I was the director of her department, and I had my own office overlooking Lake Michigan. From reception to an executive office in five years. And it was in no small part because of Helene's eminent willingness to teach, support, and empower me.

The thing is, Helene could indeed be "difficult." But not with me. She was "difficult" with the male executives who treated her like shit, with the male staff who undermined her authority. She was "difficult" with people who treated her, the only female executive at the firm, fundamentally differently than they treated the men.

Funny that I developed a reputation for being "difficult," too.

This has been my experience working for and with "difficult" women. I'm sure there are shitty female bosses in the world; of course there are. But lots of what supposedly constitutes a "difficult" female boss, or colleague, is frequently a reflection of dynamics to which she's reacting.

Dynamics like the one in which people reject female bosses, instead of rejecting workplace misogyny.

BrianWS and I have a long-running and ongoing conversation about how the more we hear that a female colleague is a bitch before meeting her, the more we are likely to love the fuck out of her. It's funny, and it's sad—but it's also true.

Tell me about a Worst Nightmare Broad, and I can almost guarantee that she and I are going to get along just fine.

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