A reader sent us this story about attitudes toward female bosses, as revealed in a Elle/MSNBC.com Work & Power survey (key findings available here). From the MSNBC website:

While more than half our 60,000 respondents said a person’s sex makes no difference to leadership abilities, most who expressed a preference said men are more likely to be effective leaders.

Of male respondents, 41 percent said men are more likely to be good leaders, and 33 percent of women agreed. And three out of four women who expressed a preference said they would rather work for a man than a woman.

The survey, conducted early this year, found a bonanza of stereotypes among those polled, with many using the optional comment section to label women "moody," "bitchy," "gossipy" and "emotional." The most popular term for woman, used 347 times, was "catty."

There are still few women in the corner office today, and the numbers appear to be declining. Our survey sheds light on one obstacle blocking women from the boardroom: negative attitudes about women leaders — attitudes women themselves still harbor.

"One cannot live in a sexist society without absorbing some of those messages, which make women feel worse about themselves and suspicious of other women," said Janet Lever, a professor of sociology at California State University in Los Angeles, who helped conceive the survey. "The enemy is omnipresent cultural messages, not women themselves."

The smart Echidne analyzes the survey — and the many negative comments about women that follow the story — and pulls out what’s truly important here:

[The] major message of it is that the gender of the boss does not matter for the majority of the respondents. But because more people prefer a male boss to a female boss the article then veers into the question of what might be wrong with female bosses.

Note that we don’t really get a discussion anywhere on what might be wrong with male bosses (or what might be good with female bosses), and so the comments begin with the assumption (unstated) that male bosses are good, and that all one needs to do is to point out the worst possible characteristics of female bosses to compare them to the good male boss. Although some comments later diverge from this, the topic is not set up as a neutral one, and it is not surprising that we don’t get a balanced discussion.

She also notes that often the same commenters who think women are too emotional for the workplace paradoxically think women should stay at home with the children. "You know, I never got that," writes Echidne. "The people who really believe that women are incapable of leading or logic or of anything but backstabbing and gossiping and bursting into tears want these same people in SOLE RESPONSIBILITY of vulnerable minors! Imagine that."

Let’s just add that with survey results like these — "Female bosses who were considered attractive were rated competent 58 percent of the time, compared with 23 percent for unattractive supervisors" — well, we’re not surprised by the sometimes reactionary response.

The story does feature good expert commentary. And near the end of page two (finally), it does note that there are "some glimmers of hope":

About 54 percent of those polled in our survey said they didn’t care if their boss was a man or a woman. And when individuals actually had experience working for a female boss, their preference for a women leader went up slightly. Younger workers 18 to 29 appeared to have a higher preference for female chiefs than those 30 and up, possibly pointing to a generational change.

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  • Laura Sillerman March 9, 2007 at 1:02 pm

    The more we unite around common goals, the less we’ll hate ourselves and project that self loathing on other women.
    The more we unite around common goals, the less competitive, “catty,” moody we’ll be perceived to be.
    The more we cause the media to be realistic about who we are, the more real everything will get and the less likely a story of this kind will be.