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Will women ever be accepted as the boss?

Today, female leaders are expected to be everything — tough and hard-charging, nurturing and warm — then we blame them for being mere mortals.

Scotty Reifsnyder

By Joanna Weiss

Back in 1953, the age of Brylcreem and midday martinis, Gallup polled Americans with this question: “If you were taking a new job and had your choice of boss, would you prefer to work for a man or a woman?” The results were predictable: 66 percent chose a man and only 5 percent a woman; an enlightened 25 percent said gender made no difference.

When Gallup asked the same question in 2014, a full 46 percent of Americans said a boss’s gender wouldn’t matter. We’ve made progress! Sort of. Still, 33 percent of respondents said they’d prefer to work for a man, and only 20 percent said they’d rather work for a woman. And women were more likely to say they wanted a man as boss.

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What is it, precisely, that people are resisting? Maybe it’s old stereotypes of the woman-who-rhymes-with-witch: Meryl Streep’s turn in The Devil Wears Prada still looms over pop culture, abetted by former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, with her steely presence in presidential debates.

Maybe it’s the competing stereotype: the woman who’s hysterical. Recently, hip-hop artist T.I. had to apologize for saying he wouldn’t support Hillary Clinton for president because “women make rash decisions emotionally.”

Or maybe it’s a modern twist. Today, we want our female leaders to be everything — tough and hard-charging, nurturing and warm — then blame them for being mere mortals with variable strengths. Witness the national ambivalence over Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer, scrutinized for her bold business moves, her tight reins on workplace culture, and her plans to take an infinitesimal maternity leave.

Should Mayer be treated like a male CEO who stays comfortably glued to the office and never faces questions about returning to work mere days after a child is born? Or does she have an obligation to other working mothers, to prove that new parents can take time off and still be committed to her job?

Women have an expectation that other women are going to understand them and are inevitably let down when they don’t, says Harvard Business School professor Robin Ely: “If our expectations are higher, the disappointments are greater.”

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I spoke to Ely and other business-culture specialists about the changing perceptions of the female boss, at a time when we’re poised to possibly, maybe elect our first female commander in chief. The so-called double bind in politics — the idea that women are punished for being too tough, but also for being too weak — is such conventional wisdom that it’s starting to be questioned. (Case in point: It’s more than fine that Hillary Clinton once cried.)

In the workplace, ideas about gender are shifting, too. Just not as quickly as we’d like to think.

In the 1980s, Ely surveyed women at big law firms, asking them about their offices’ gender dynamics. In firms with more female partners, Ely found, relationships among women were better at all levels: There was less dysfunctional competition, more mutual support.

In firms with fewer women at the top — where, as Ely put it, being female seemed to be a liability — women were far less likely to help one another.

In other words, the more women bosses, the happier the women in the office, and the more those old stereotypes shatter. The trick is getting real life to catch up to the ideal. Back when Ely conducted her research, a firm had a “good” gender balance if 15 to 20 percent of its partners were women. That’s the same percentage of female partners, she notes, that many big law firms have today. The ranks of female corporate leadership, Mayer and Fiorina notwithstanding, are growing disturbingly slowly.

There are a thousand theories about why — not enough leaning in, too much opting out — but there’s also that tricky business of expectations. The “hostile sexism” of the Mad Men days is no longer socially acceptable, says Lawrence University professor Peter Glick. (T.I., who swore he was joking about Clinton, clearly felt great pressure to grovel.) But in its place is what Glick calls “benevolent sexism,” a patronizing chivalry that can be just as undercutting. In some industries, he’s found, women are more likely to get praise and positive feedback but are also denied the most challenging assignments.

And if women do become corporate leaders, Glick tells me, they face different sorts of assumptions. Women are stereotyped as warm and nurturing, which sounds so complimentary. But a female boss who has to exert her power in a competitive workplace — to tell employees what they don’t want to hear — might come across as colder than a man in the same situation.

Some social scientists argue that men become more assertive when they work for female bosses — exerting their masculinity more, because they feel threatened by shifting gender roles. In a study published last summer in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers from Italy’s Bocconi University asked subjects to share bonuses with a fictional supervisor. Men were more likely to take a bigger share for themselves if they had a female boss — even more so, in one experiment, if that woman was described as “power-seeking” or ambitious.

Clinton would recognize that complaint: “Ambitious” is used often as an epithet against her, as if the men who run for president aren’t ambitious, too. Glick wonders whether certain blustery male politicians get more leeway to be obnoxious: “bad but bold.” In male leaders, he says, “we want a tough guy.”

The good news in the business world is that some of those ideals are changing. Studies of female leadership find that, in general, “women are more participative and democratic and relational in leadership, so they’re less likely to order people about in a top-down way,” says Alice Eagly, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and the coauthor of Through the Labyrinth: The Truth About How Women Become Leaders.

And as women have slowly filled more ranks of leadership, Eagly says, our view of what a boss should be has shifted, too. The autocratic mastermind of the Brylcreem days is no longer the ideal. Today’s dream boss is a cajoler, a promoter, a delegator, a team builder.

Even Carly Fiorina seems to agree. “The highest calling of leadership,” she says, “is to unlock the potential of others.”

It’s a line that serves her well on the campaign trail. Perhaps we’re embracing the female boss, whether we know it or not.


Joanna Weiss is a Boston Globe columnist She can be reached at weiss@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @joannaweiss.