Women expect more from female bosses

Female employees have higher expectations of female bosses and believe they should be more supportive and empathetic than a male superior, according to research from a New Zealand university.

The new Massey University research found that female employees expected their female bosses to be more understanding, empathetic and supportive than male bosses while also treating them as equals and giving them more flexibility to accommodate their lives outside of work.

Eleven out of the 15 women interviewed as part of the research had negative relationships with female bosses which resulted in them taking a backwards or sideways career step, said PhD student Dr Jane Hurst, who conducted the study.

Hurst was assisted by her supervisors Dr Margot Edwards, and Research, Academic & Enterprise Assistant Vice-Chancellor Sarah Leberman, both also from Massey.

Hurst said the research did not show the presence of a “Queen Bee” syndrome, where women managers work aggressively against interests of other women in an organisation.

Instead, it showed gendered expectations in the workplace. 

Findings showed that while some expectations could be applied to a manager of any gender, women expected more from female superiors.

“While many of the expectations would apply equally irrespective of gender, after more discussion, it became apparent that the participants did have specific expectations of their women managers based on gender.

“They expected women managers to show a greater degree of emotional understanding and support towards their women employees than male managers.

“They also expected women managers to treat their women employees as equals, see them as a whole person and understand their life circumstances and their need for exibility.”

There were 15 participants with ages ranged from 25- to 54-years. Ethnicities included New Zealand European, Māori, Samoan, Chinese, Zimbabwean, Romania and Australian with a range of occupations in the public, health, financial, defence force and beauty industries.

The research was carried out through a series of interviews and workshops and has been published in four international journals.

Another key finding showed women who had negative workplace relationships with other women were badly impacted by it, Hurst.

“Most women get on fine in the workplace, so it is really important to have that message across. What I did find was, which was quite surprising, was how many women had had quite negative relationships during their careers who took a backwards step or side step following that.

“Eleven out of the 15 had one relationship that had affected them quite badly and they still talked about it in really emotional terms.”

The findings have implications for workplace structures and cultures, as well as gender equality, said Hurst.

Women who had negative experiences with female bosses were more likely to resign and even take time out from their careers.

“Hierarchical relationships between women in the workplace have the potential to affect women’s careers, particularly when these relationships are negative.

“Our research suggests that many women will, during the course of their working lives, experience a particularly strained or damaging relationship with a woman manager and that this may impact on their careers.

However, most of the negative relationships reported occurred during times of change or high stress in the workplace.

“Our research suggests that the negative relationships between women managers and employees are often situated within a context of significant organisational change, which places considerable stress on all people involved, and consequently on relationships.”

Hurst said she had always assumed that as more women entered the workforce, they would support younger women coming through and gender inequality would eventually disappear. She chose her thesis topic because that obviously hadn’t happened.

The authors recognised the need for longer term studies in this area.

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