Why Do Women Prefer Working For Male Bosses?

Ladies, think back over your work history. During that time, have you preferred working more for male bosses or for female bosses? If you answered male bosses, then you’re not alone.

By Ella Carroll-Smith4 min read
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In 2016, scientists conducted a study with over 11,600 U.S. employees and found that women were less satisfied with their jobs when they reported to a female boss, whereas men showed no difference in job satisfaction based on their supervisor’s gender. In light of the major push to get women into more positions of power in the workplace, this seems like a strange finding. 

After all, women have been championed over the years and encouraged to reach the highest echelons of corporate power. We dubbed them “girl bosses” and cheered every time a new female CEO came onto the scene. At first glance, it might seem reasonable to assume that women would prefer reporting to a female boss rather than a male boss. 

Women should be able to relate to female bosses more, right? Their communication should be less stressful because they understand each other on a deeper level. Women are supposed to support other women in the workplace – not cause them distress. There are entire support groups, fashion lines, and podcasts dedicated to female empowerment and women supporting women at work. But the results are in, and it turns out that (on average), most women still prefer working for males. Why?

Queen Bee Syndrome

A common belief is that this is mere "queen bee syndrome," which is a phenomenon where a female employee in a position of authority behaves in a hostile or condescending manner toward other female employees. They do this because, essentially, they think they have to do it in order to gain respect in the workplace. 

Growing up, many younger women who had the girl boss trope forced down their throats now feel the need to assert themselves in the workplace and "act like a man." They might see acting hostile as the only way to be taken seriously. However, the tactics they use to demand respect from their colleagues might lead to the misimpression (or arguably the correct impression...) that they're acting cruelly. 

Queen bee syndrome is when a female in a position of authority behaves with hostility toward other female employees. 

Queen bee syndrome might have something to do with why women report less satisfaction when working for a female boss, but it’s not the whole story. There is something much deeper going on here. 

From Caves to the Boardroom, Female Relationships Have Always Been More Complex

Tania Reynolds, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor in Psychology at the University of New Mexico, has been studying the complicated dynamics of female hierarchy for years and believes that women have their ancestors to thank for their modern boardroom behavior. From an evolutionary perspective, power dynamics among females have always been much different and more nuanced than power dynamics among males. 

Since it’s more difficult to form cooperative relationships with people you aren’t related to, the ways that our non-kin female ancestors formed bonds were typically through either reciprocal altruism or mutualism. There is no familial bond between non-kin females, so they’re forming relationships either based on shared goals or exchanging benefits in a “tit-for-tat” manner. According to Dr. Reynolds, these types of altruistic or mutual female bonds have the best chances of succeeding when the parties involved have equal levels of power and resources. 

She gives the example of a female celebrity forming a relationship with a homeless woman. It’s highly unlikely that this relationship would be successful because the parties involved have diametrically opposite levels of resources and their goals are not aligned. The celebrity has very little to gain from the homeless woman. Since the bond between them is not mutually beneficial, this relationship would likely devolve into exploitation or “resource-leeching.” This is an exaggerated example, of course, but this dynamic can play out on smaller scales as well – even when the power dynamics are not so drastically divergent. 

Dr. Reynolds posits the theory that “women throughout human history upheld their reciprocal bonds with unrelated women … in contexts where they were equal in terms of power and resources and that too strong of deviations would have led to conflict and corroded the relationship. This can become problematic in modern contexts when there are clear demarcations in status and resources.”

Men are designed to work together in a clearly-defined hierarchy, but women prefer equality.

Our male ancestors did not form bonds the same way. They were typically forming larger groups for the contexts of hunting and warfare. When forming these large groups, there’s an advantage to having larger numbers. In these contexts, it’s helpful to have a strong hierarchy. 

Think about the military: Armies are more successful and cohesive when there are clear differences in status. If every member of an army were of equal rank, it would be total chaos. This is true when it comes to professional sports as well. Even a football team has defined levels of hierarchy, from the coach to the quarterback, all the way down to the water boy. 

Differing levels of status among men in these circumstances aren’t as likely to lead to inter-team conflict because even if the quarterback is of higher status and skill, his success leads to the entire team winning. Men throughout history were more often competing in these sorts of contexts, so they were most likely to succeed when there was a clear hierarchy and different levels of status. Essentially, men are designed to work together in a hierarchy, but women prefer equality. 

Men Use Their Fists, Whereas Women Engage in Psychological Warfare

Dr. Joyce Benenson, a lecturer of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, has had similar findings in her research, which shows that competition tends to corrode female relationships, whereas men can more easily return to cooperation following the competition. Dr. Benenson’s research found that women are more likely to engage in “safe, subtle, and solitary competition.” 

From a purely reproductive perspective, it was more important for our female ancestors to stay alive than for our male ancestors because they carry and take care of the children. Women could not take as many risks as men, so they had to compete for status differently. Men used their fists to fight, whereas women engaged in more psychological forms of warfare because it was safer. 

Women also do not like it when their female peers do better than them. Of course, you can be happy when your female friend gets a promotion at work, but if your friend were to be too braggadocios about it, that would probably bother you. 

Competition corrodes female relationships. 

Similarly, if your female friend rose to a much higher status than you (maybe she’s flying on private jets while you’re flying coach), then that is likely to cause a strain on your relationship – especially if she brags about it. Women prefer humility and humbleness in other women. 

How Do Ancient Female Power Dynamics Manifest in the Workplace?

With all of this in mind, it’s now much clearer why women typically prefer working for male bosses as opposed to female bosses. There is a defined hierarchy between a boss and their employee, and while that works great for males, that is a problematic power dynamic for females. Men don’t mind a female boss because as long as she’s competent, they all succeed. It’s more difficult for women to work cooperatively with a female boss because they are not equals, which is especially true if there is some queen bee syndrome going on as well. 

A male employee might be willing to call out bad behavior or speak to his boss if he has an issue, but a female employee is less likely to do this because it goes against her preference for “safe, subtle, and solitary competition.” Sure, having a serious discussion with your boss about office politics is not the same thing as a physical fight, but there is danger there (you could potentially lose your job), and it’s not subtle or solitary. 

Instead of speaking honestly with her female boss about how she’s feeling, a woman is more likely to keep her feelings to herself, which leads to resentment, which leads to wishing she were working somewhere else – perhaps for a male boss, whom she would not resent. 

Closing Thoughts

Of course, none of this means that women make bad bosses or that women shouldn’t work together or be in positions of power. Women are capable of doing all of these things, but it’s much easier to work in harmony if you understand why certain power dynamics are likely to breed animosity. Knowing the biological reason behind your preferences and why you are the way you are is the key to living a happier and more balanced life, both in the office and outside it. 

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