Why So Many Americans Still Prefer a Male Boss
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Carmel Lobello
TheWeek.com
November 11, 2013

More grim statistics for future Sheryl Sandbergs and Marissa Mayers:

After 60 years of asking a random sample of Americans which gender they prefer to work for, Gallup recently found that both men and women still prefer a male boss over a female boss — a gap that has barely budged in the last 10 years.

In a survey of 2,059 Americans from a variety of work backgrounds, 35 percent said they prefer a male boss, while 23 percent said they prefer to work for a woman. Forty-one percent, meanwhile, volunteered that they don't care either way — the largest percent in the history of the survey.

Since 1953 the gap has narrowed: 66 percent preferred a male boss in 1953, while just 5 percent preferred a woman, and 25 percent saw no difference.

But, like other aspects of gender imbalance at work, the move toward equal boss preference has lost steam in the last decade. In 2002, 19 percent of Americans preferred a female boss, and 31 preferred a male boss — a similar difference to the one Gallup found today, and one that mirrors the gender wage gap. For comparison, earlier this year, the U.S. Census Bureau said women in full-time, year-round jobs still make 77 cents for every dollar men make — a zero percent change since 2002. Many have been lamenting this fact for the last half-decade, asking why a movement that once seemed unstoppable is apparently stuck in neutral.

The answer for both the wage and attitudes-about-bosses gaps are likely more complicated than run-of-the-mill sexism. One factor for the latter poses a kind of catch-22. When it comes to taking directions from superiors, people may tend to prefer what they know: 54 percent of those surveyed say they currently work for a man, while only 30 percent work for a woman. And the percentage of male bosses grows on the way up the corporate ladder, says a census by Catalyst, a non-profit related to women and the business world. In 2012, women held only 14.3 percent of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies, and just 16.6 percent of board of director positions. One quarter of these companies operated with no women executive officers at all.

This matters because Gallup found that those surveyed who currently work for a woman are more likely to prefer a female boss than those who work for a man. The preference didn't entirely fill in the blank space, but it helped. Gallup puts it like this:

Those who currently work for a woman are as likely to prefer having a female boss as a male one. This is one of the few subgroups of the population that does not tilt in the "male boss" direction. Those who currently work for a man prefer a male boss, by 35 percent to 17 percent. [Gallup]

Still, the polling company is careful to warn against reading too much into the data: "[I]t is possible that workers who initially prefer a female boss are more likely to end up in circumstances in which they have a female boss," it says. But it's not an outlandish proposition: That a world with more female bosses would also be a world with more people who like female bosses.

Clearly, we're still a ways off from such a world. As Sheryl Sandberg pointed out earlier this year in her blockbuster career book, Lean In, some of the stunted progress women are experiencing at the top level might be due to a "likability gap." Studies have suggested that the more promotions, raises, and accolades a woman earns in the workplace, the less likely she is to be liked by her peers and coworkers, whereas likability and achievement for men are often positively correlated. This argument seems to align nicely with Gallup's findings — maybe people prefer male bosses because they don't yet see female bosses as "likable."

But Gallup's results also suggest that this could change. American workers may see a stronger link between female success and likability when more female bosses are signing more checks.

This article originally appeared at TheWeek.com. Read more from TheWeek.com:

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