“Is there some reason my coffee isn’t here? Has she died or something?”
This question – asked by Miranda Priestly of her long-suffering assistant, Andy, as she strides down the halls of legendary fashion magazine Runway in The Devil Wears Prada – perfectly epitomises the bitchy, calculated and demanding stereotype that many female bosses are burdened with. Of course, we all know that Miranda is a fictional character, but she’s played with such savagery and conviction by Meryl Streep that she’s taken on a kind of legendary status; she’s the pin-up for bad bosses everywhere – a person we all love to hate.
As entertaining as it is, this representation of women is, sadly, not uncommon. In both film and TV, female leaders are often either portrayed as a calculating ‘bitch’ or a hapless matriarch, with little in between. Think about it. The ruthless Claire Underwood in House of Cards. The blundering Liz Lemon in 30 Rock. Joan Holloway in Mad Men, Leslie Knope in Parks & Recreation… each of these women subscribes to one binary or the other, leaving us with the suspicion that the world thinks women are just a bit amateurish at being in charge.
Maybe this statement sounds a little alarmist given the acknowledgement of women as, well… people that the Me Too and feminist movements have brought us, but five minutes of internet research, unfortunately, proved me right.
A quick search on Google of the term ‘female bosses’ proved particularly down-heartening. The entire first page was made of results casting women in a negative light. The top article, from The Atlantic, reads ‘Why women prefer male bosses’. The next one down labels women as ‘bully bosses’ and the third one, from the Metro, poses the question, ‘Why do so many female bosses have queen bee syndrome?’
Rather than attempting to answer these questions, it made me want to pose one of my own: why is there still so much negativity surrounding female bosses?
Of course, attributing this to the perception of women, in general, isn’t a particularly daring leap. We’ve long known that women are dealt ‘bossy’, ‘needy’ and ‘naggy’ whilst men get to be ‘assertive’, ‘attentive’ and ‘persistent’ and the perception of women as queen bees in the boardroom is just another misogynistic lens through which we’re made to look at the world.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that a recent survey done by FoundryFox and Clickon Insights found that only 32 percent of people have a female boss and a 2015 survey conducted by Ernst & Young found that there are fewer female leaders than men named John, Robert, James or William in the S&P 1500. With such negative stereotypes and prejudice to contend with, is it any wonder that women are so poorly represented in leadership?
Karen Kwong, founder and CEO of RenOC – a management consultancy – found that in her early days of being in charge, she continually fought against the perception of women in the workplace. “Most of [our work] was done via the telephone, and there were countless people who assumed that if a female answered the phone, she must be the PA.”
And this wasn’t all. When people did find out that Kwong was the boss, most assumed she’d achieved this by nefarious means. “The number of people who assumed, some of whom asked me directly, that I had slept my way to the top was ridiculous. Would a man have been asked the same question?”
We, of course, already know the answer to this. Just as women walking down the street have historically endured derogatory comments and misdirected attention, so have women in the office. Left with such limited means to be respected, in the past, many have turned to masculine personas in order to be taken seriously or – as Rachael Sigee discussed in this recent feature for The Pool – minimised their status to ‘girl boss’ as a more palatable form of leadership; a sugar-coated, candy floss version of being in charge that poses no threat to others.
‘I have had to change elements of my personality,’ says Hayley Smith, founder of Boxed Out PR and she is not alone. Of the group of ten female friends that I asked, seven of them felt that they’d had to adopt more ‘masculine’ traits in order to be taken seriously.
The tide looks to be turning though. Foundry Fox found that nearly 52 percent of readers have a female mentor or role model at work and, as freelance journalist and PR director, Almara Abgarian, points out, “news surrounding women in business has increased substantially in the past few years. There’s a collective push by women and men to showcase amazing business women, and hopefully, this will help bridge the workplace equality gap”.
So perhaps it’s time to turn our perception of female bosses on its head and instead of railing against the terminology used to describe them, we should adopt it as our own. After all, as Tina Fey – a far cry from her Liz Lemon character – once so accurately said; ‘you know what? “Bitches” get stuff done.’
If being a ‘bitch’ equates to being an effective and efficient leader, then perhaps many of us are. And in true Miranda Priestly style, I’ll simply finish by saying, “that’s all.”