Time to Set Male vs. Female Boss Bias Aside

A UConn researcher found that while people would rather work for someone ‘like’ themselves, their gender is only one component.

A female business woman with colleagues in the background. (iStock Photo)

A female business woman with colleagues in the background. (iStock Photo)

A female business woman with colleagues in the background. (iStock Photo)
A female manager with professional colleagues. A new UConn study analyzes why some people prefer to work for a man while others prefer a female boss. (iStock Photo)

For 60 years, the Gallup organization has been asking adult Americans whether they would prefer working for a man or a woman. And for 60 years, the response has been nearly the same. Among those who expressed a preference, the majority said they would rather work for a man.

But what are the factors behind people’s choice? UConn business professor Gary Powell, a specialist in the role of gender in the workplace, says people are not only influenced by their own sex – as defined by biology – in selecting the gender of a potential boss, but also by their own gender identification, something that isn’t apparent in the Gallup results.

Powell, professor of management and Ackerman Scholar in the School of Business, has dedicated his career to the study of the role of gender in the workplace. He conducted his own survey, together with colleague D. Anthony Butterfield of the Isenberg School of Management at University of Massachusetts.

Their results, published in the February issue of the Journal of Vocational Behavior, suggest that people are influenced as much by their gender belief systems as they are by their sex.

“So while the headlines following the release of every Gallup survey tend to make this seem like a straightforward issue, with males being the preferred boss, it’s really much more complex,” he says.

In the survey of upper-level undergraduate students and part-time evening MBA students, participants were first asked the same question Gallup pollsters ask: If you were taking a new job and had your choice of a boss, would you prefer to work for a man or a woman?

Next, they completed the short-form Bem Sex-Role Inventory – a tool that measures gender identity, or the extent to which people describe themselves as possessing “masculine” traits (those traditionally associated with males in gender stereotypes) and “feminine” traits (those traditionally associated with females).

Answers were classified as being androgynous (high in both masculinity and femininity); masculine (high masculinity/low femininity); feminine (low masculinity/high femininity); or undifferentiated (low in both masculinity and femininity).

Findings showed that while the majority of respondents answering the question professed no preference for the sex of their hypothetical boss, those who did express a preference used gender identity as a factor.

In other words, those individuals expressing a preference, and classified as masculine in gender identity, were more likely to choose to work for a male boss. Those expressing a preference who were classified as feminine were more likely to say they would like to work for a female boss. However, those who were classified as androgynous or undifferentiated were less inclined to prefer a boss of a particular sex. This was regardless of the sex of the respondents.

“Our study supports the similarity attraction paradigm that suggests people are more interpersonally attracted to the idea of working with and being around people whom they see as being like themselves,” Powell says. “And while someone’s sex is an important component of ‘alikeness,’ it is by no means the only measure that people use.”

Powell points out that continuing efforts to understand the intersection of sex, gender, and leadership will be helpful in overcoming stubborn stereotypes that equate a person’s sex with their business acumen.

“In one sense,” he says, “women have made significant strides in the ranks of top management in the past two decades. This year, there are 25 female CEOs on the Fortune 500, up from 20 a year ago and zero in 1995. On the other hand, the fact that this accounts for only 5 percent of the list shows that businesses have a long way to go in promoting qualified women to top management positions.

“A more encouraging trajectory is that the number of women MBAs has steadily increased, and continues to do so. In the early 1970s, the decade in which I was in the early stages of my research, only 4 per cent of new MBAs were women. Now, the proportion of female MBAs is up to around 40 per cent nationally, and that’s a tangible sign of progress.”