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08/19/2021

The Myth of the Critical Female Boss

Banishing the idea that women aren’t suited to leadership roles can help talented candidates advance
Sarah Alter
President and CEO, Network of Executive Women
Sarah Alter profile picture
The Myth of the Critical Female Boss
The retail industry must let go of the preconceptions that limit the potential for women to shine as leaders.

The Fortune 500 for 2021 has yet again broken a record of more female CEOs than ever, carrying on last year’s trend in the same direction. Yet women still make up only 8.1% of Fortune 500 CEOs, and one has to wonder what old biases might be continuing to contribute to this disparity of female bosses.

We’ve all heard workplace myths, truths universally acknowledged about working in the corporate world. Based on feelings rather than facts, they nestle deeply into workplace cultures, and can be difficult to uproot. Take the myth that remote employees are less productive, for example. Clearly disproven by research time and time again, put to the ultimate test last year, this myth has no basis in fact. It still has yet to be completely let go in the wake of the pandemic, however.

Another deeply ingrained myth that women make toxic bosses is also unfortunately still alive and well in our workplaces. Banishing it is a key step to advancing women to leadership roles.

Overcoming the Stereotype

When critiqued by a woman in management, I sincerely hope your first reaction isn’t to lump her in with this problematic stereotype. It’s true that your boss may have poor management skills, or be unable to offer truly constructive criticism. That’s one possibility. Another is that you expect a woman to manage in a softer way. According to a recent study by the Bonn, Germany-based IZA Institute of Labor Economics, both men and women react more negatively to criticism when it comes from a woman.

Knowing how many women we lost from the workplace due to 2020’s “she-cession,” demolishing bias is more important than ever. It can be insidious, affecting our opinions of others even when we think we’re doing everything we can to be good and supportive allies – and it can affect both women and men.

Fighting Bias

First, take your temperature on the feedback itself. Examine how you would feel about it if it came from a male co-worker at the same level as the woman who offered it. How would you feel? Would it seem less harsh? More “par for the course”?

This isn’t to say that all workplace behavior is appropriate, of course. True toxicity is poison to any workplace, and it’s worth analyzing whether the workplace around you is toxic in itself. Self-reflection doesn’t mean you should let bad behavior go unchecked, it just means a gut check is in order. Your strong reaction to criticism could be rooted, if unconsciously, in old ideas about how women should use their voices. For us all to push the cause of women forward, we must look inward, and let go of the preconceptions that limit the potential of female bosses. 

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