"You know, you're not a man," Akio Morita, Sony's cofounder and former chairman of the board, said to one of the firm's senior female executives over dinner one night.
"Nope, that's absolutely true," the woman, a single divorced mother with three children, replied.
"But you're not a woman."
"Uh, OK. What am I?"
"You're in a third category."
Right, she's a woman boss.
It was some two decades ago that Barbara Annis, now of Barbara Annis & Associates, a firm that advises blue-chip companies on gender diversity and inclusiveness, had that conversation with the late "god of Sony." But not a lot has changed in terms of how we view female leaders.
The real surprise came when the ForbesWoman Facebook community was canvassed: "Would you rather work for a man or a woman?" The majority replied, "A man any day of the week," to use the words of Stephanie Rovengo.
How women and men are perceived differently
Are men actually better bosses? Are women doing something wrong?
It's not just anecdotal that male bosses are perceived to be better at their jobs. "It's a general cultural phenomenon, the preference for men leaders and bosses," says Alice Eagly, Ph.D., a social psychology professor at Northwestern University.
According to the most recent Gallup data, from 2006, 34 percent of men preferred a male boss, while 10 percent preferred a female boss, and 40 percent of women preferred a male boss, while 26 percent preferred a female boss. (The remaining respondents of both genders had no preference.)
One explanation for the across-the-board preference of male leaders may be deeply instilled gender stereotypes held by both men and women. "The cultural model of a leader is masculine," says Eagly. "Leaders are thought to be people who are dominant and competitive and take-charge, and are confident. Those kinds of qualities are ascribed to men far more than women. Women are ascribed to be nice. We are, above all, nice."
Adopting "masculine" traits can backfire
As a result, many executive women have adopted male personality traits. This is what Annis, who is chair of the Women's Leadership Board at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, did in the early 1980s as she worked her way up the corporate ladder at Sony. "They thought I wasn't assertive, and so they sent me for assertiveness training for women, called 'guerrilla war tactics for women in business,'" she says, recalling how they taught her to lower and project her voice.
Twenty years later, through her firm's work, she still notices women distancing themselves from their female identities, just trying to be one of the guys.
But when women take on male characteristics, they are viewed more negatively than a man doing the exact same thing, says Robin Ely, Ph.D., a professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School.
Be careful not to take on the worst characteristics of other male bosses and become overly competitive, overly individualistic, or overly warrior-like in trying to prove yourself and to fit in, says professor Ella L.J. Edmonson Bell, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and the author of "Career GPS: Strategies for Women Navigating the New Corporate Landscape."
Pitfalls for women execs
Ely references an experiment where MBA students were asked to evaluate the likability, style, competence, and hiring appeal of the main characters in two case studies.
The results were striking. Even though the two case studies were exactly the same except for the gender of the main character, the male character was found to be more likable and more likely to be hired. The woman was considered power hungry, and the more aggressive that students perceived her to be, the more they disliked her. It's tired but true: Executive women are damned if they act like men, and damned if they don't.
Authenticity and clear communication are key
The better bet? Authenticity inspires people and forms solid relationships with others, says Edmonson Bell. Good male leaders are authentic. They talk about being a Marine; they talk about their maleness. "Being a woman doesn't have to be a big deal; it's just a part of who you are. You don't have to hide it," she says.
As a leader, it's critical that you provide your employees with clear and precise feedback and declare your intentions as a boss. Directly tell your subordinates, "I really want you to experience me as a source of empowerment and support in getting your job done. Now here's what you need to do to make that happen."
Women see fewer opportunities
To complicate things further, relationships between female bosses and female subordinates can be particularly prickly, especially in firms with few women at the top. In the male-dominated professional service firms Ely has studied, female executives universally condemned the most senior women. "They described them as poor role models; they felt no ability to identify with them on the basis of shared gender," she says.
But in firms with partnerships composed of 15 percent to 20 percent women, the women leaders were universally applauded. Ely attributes this phenomenon in part to the stress of being a token. "You're always going to experience heightened performance pressure. You're going to be a lot more visible ... I think the junior women look up, and [their] expectation is that these women need to be everything." In addition, female leaders in a male-dominated firm may not be comfortable lobbying for gender equality out of fear it could compromise their own success, she says.
When there are fewer women at the top, this communicates to lower-level women that only a small percentage of the opportunity in the firm is available to them, says Edmondson Bell. This heightens the competition between women as they all fight for the same few spots.
Connect at every level
Edmondson Bell's advice is to connect with other women lower down on the totem poll. These women can be sources of intel, constructive feedback, and emotional strength. "Every good woman needs an 'atta-girl' group."
Annis adds: If you're a pioneer woman who has paved the road to the top, be sure to allow others to travel on it. Just because one woman had to scratch and claw her way to the top doesn't mean the rest of the women on your team or company should have to.
The truth about women bosses
None of this, though, means women are actually worse bosses than men. And they just might be better. The January 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review looked at how female and male leaders were rated in 360-degree feedback reviews on leadership competencies as defined by Insead's Global Leadership Center in Fontainebleau Cedex, France. The eight competencies were envisioning, energizing, designing and aligning, rewarding and feedback, team building, outside orientation, tenacity, and emotional intelligence. It ends up that female leaders were rated higher on every dimension but one: envisioning, which is "the ability to recognize new opportunities and trends in the environment and develop a new strategic direction for an enterprise."
It's well worth noting that the leadership competencies measured in the study were not traditional masculine-associated traits such as competitiveness, self-confidence, and dominance. This could be an example of a new trend. There is some evidence, says Eagly, that the "cultural model of leadership is becoming more androgynous ... the old top-down style, command-and-control is no longer as popular."
The bottom line is women don't necessarily make worse bosses. They are just perceived as such.