The Myth of the Female Boss

a woman wearing glasses and smiling at the camera
Sarah Alter

Fortune 500 companies have more female CEOs for 2021 than ever, carrying on last year’s trend in the same direction. Yet women still only make up 8.1% of Fortune 500 CEOs, and one has to wonder what old biases might be continuing to contribute to this disparity.

We’ve all heard workplace myths universally acknowledged about working in the corporate world. Based in feelings, not facts, they nestle deeply into workplace cultures and can be very difficult to uproot. Take the myth that remote employees are less productive, for example. Clearly disproven by research time and time again, put to the ultimate test last year, this myth has no basis in fact. But it still has yet to be completely let go in the wake of the pandemic.

Another deeply-ingrained myth – that women make “toxic” bosses – is also unfortunately still alive and well in our workplaces. Banishing it is a key step to advancing women to leadership roles.

Beyond the Myth

I sincerely hope, when critiqued by a woman in management, your first reaction isn’t to lump her in with this problematic stereotype. It’s true that your boss may have poor management skills, or be unable to offer truly constructive criticism. It’s one possibility.

Another possibility is that you expect a woman to manage in a softer way. According to a recent study by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, both men and women react more negatively to criticism when it comes from a woman.

Knowing how many women we lost from the workplace due to the 2020s “She-cession,” demolishing bias is more important than it’s ever been. And it can be insidious, affecting our opinions of others even when we think we’re doing everything we can to be a good and supportive ally. Additionally, it can affect both women and men.

Fighting Bias

First, take your temperature on the feedback itself. Examine how you would feel about it if it came from a male co-worker at the same level as the woman who offered it. How would you feel? Would it seem less harsh? More “par for the course”?

This isn’t to say that all workplace behavior is appropriate, of course. True toxicity is poison to any workplace, and it’s worth analyzing whether the workplace around you is toxic in itself.

Self-reflection doesn’t mean you should let bad behavior go unchecked, far from it. It just means a gut check is in order. Your strong reaction to criticism could be rooted, if unconsciously, in old ideas about how women should use their voices.

For us all to push the cause of women forward, we must look inward, and let go of the preconceptions that limit the full potential for women to shine as true leaders.

Sarah Alter is president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women, a nonprofit learning, leadership and gender equality advocacy organization of 13,500 members (representing nearly 900 organizations), 300-plus national and regional corporate partners, and 22 regional groups in the United States and Canada.