Workplace Issues

The Female Boss: Fodder For Gender Stereotyping!

As they climb the corporate ladder, women at work find that being the female boss invariably leads to gender stereotyping.

According to the Work & Power Survey conducted by Elle and, stereotypes about gender and leadership are still very strong. The survey found that negative attitudes about female leaders are still blocking women from reaching boardroom positions and that a lot of women employees themselves harbour negative attitudes about women leaders. Men were perceived as being more effective leaders as compared to women who were perceived as being either of the two extremes, too soft and emotional or total slave drivers.

We asked around to see what people think about female bosses, and which stereotypes prevail here in India.


Gender Stereotyping 1: The Emotional/Hormonal Monster

One commonly held idea about women bosses was that they are emotional and therefore less likely to be rational, whereas the male boss, most people felt is more likely to take decisions rationally. What can actually be a strength – being intuitively able to sense things and use one’s gut feel, is seen as a liability when it comes to the workplace.

Says Pankaj Ramanathan*, EA to a female Director at a media group, “She is empathetic, understanding, but quite touchy. Some days we have to walk on eggshells around her, because one never knows what can make her fly off the handle. We all joke, rather nastily, that maybe, she is PMSing.” But having said that, he also admits that his boss is more likely to listen to a staff member with personal problems, and try and counsel the person rather than haul them over the coals for any goof-ups.

Gender Stereotyping 2: The aggressive and unemotional bitch

Some female bosses get flak for being assertive, demanding and playing the game by male rules. This is the stereotype of the female tyrant boss who is wedded to her job, has no personal life worth speaking of and expects absolute subservience from her staff as well as similar dedication to the job. MSNBC quotes Deborah M. Kolb, the Deloitte Ellen Gabriel Professor for Women and Leadership at the Simmons School of Management and author of “Her Place at the Table: A Woman’s Guide to Negotiating the Five Key Challenges to Leadership Success” on the subject. She says, “In our society, leadership has been coded as masculine. To be a leader you have to be decisive and take charge. That fits fine for men, but when women do it they get labeled.”

In our society, leadership has been coded as masculine. To be a leader you have to be decisive and take charge. That fits fine for men, but when women do it they get labeled. 

Some women bosses do manage to get the work done without getting into ‘bitch’ territory. Says Amy Fernandes, Editorial Director, Jade, “I emphatically believe that your content — the stuff that you bring to the table is what counts. Which is why in my line of work, I’m afraid I cannot be anyone but myself… I do realise that people expect you to behave like the ‘boss’. Act tough, walk tough, talk tough, dress tough. To that, my answer is – forget it. Be yourself. It’s why you’re boss in the first place.”

Gender Stereotyping 3: The gentle and nurturing Pushover

When a female boss brings what are seen as ‘feminine’ skills to the management of people and organizations, she risks getting termed a pushover. Some female bosses avoid a confrontational leadership style and instead use a management style that is nurturing and relationship oriented – for e.g. taking an interest in the family of her staff or focusing more on team building. Says Sonia Bhatia*, Marketing Manager, “They (women bosses) understand some things much better than the men, especially when it comes to domestic issues. So you can discuss personal stuff and take advice. They will probably understand much better if you need some time off for personal reasons, while the men won’t, since they are not much into domestic issues themselves.”

Many women who have risen to senior positions use their innate nurturing skills to add a personal touch to their relationships with their juniors. However, it is this gentleness and nurturing style which gets female bosses mistaken for being too soft on their staff, and being pushovers.

Gender Stereotyping 4: The Queen of female groupies

Female bosses also get accused of creating in-groups of favoured staffers, to whom all the plum projects, trips, etc go. The female boss is perceived to behave like the archetypal Queen Bee with the few favoured worker drones around her to ensure she stays in top mood and form. Also, some women bosses are accused of surrounding themselves with other women, which makes the male members of their teams uncomfortable, although women have no hesitation working in largely male teams!

Some women bosses are accused of surrounding themselves with other women, which makes the male members of their teams uncomfortable, although women have no hesitation working in largely male teams!

Says Sairee Chahal, Co-Founder, Fleximoms, “Personally, I see that discomfort creeps in when hiring young graduates from B-schools or professional colleges for us. The moment they learn we are a ‘women-heavy’ team, they are not sure they want to be here. It is part of social conditioning. A woman is more likely to break into an all male-domain but the chance of men breaking into women’s domains are relatively lower.”

Gender Stereotyping 5: The Personal and Petty Boss

Some we spoke to accused female bosses of getting personal with team members when differences arise. They can get vindictive, harbour grudges and resentments for a long time, and let these affect appraisals, according to some of the people we spoke with. Says Yamini Lodha*, Journalist, “I think the basic difference I’ve observed is that with women bosses everything gets personal. If they’re friendly they want to know about your relationship with your in-laws. If they hate you, they’ll ensure you never get that junket to Italy.”

Sonia Bhatia adds, “I have also found that female bosses will keep things inside and not tell you when they don’t like something. Male bosses will just tell you straight out.”

Of course, not everyone we spoke to had such negative perceptions. Meeta Sengupta, Director, Centre for Education Strategy, who worked at ICICI, talks highly of her female bosses. She says, “These women were all solid performers, very task oriented. As bosses, they were able to demonstrate high IQ and EQ, never forgot about personal issues, never forgot a mistake, never forgot to praise and never forgot to raise the game for us. They were even handed bosses, never afraid to speak straight. In fact they always batted with a straight bat with male and female subordinates. And that’s why they were loved, because they were firm, but fair.”

The frequency with which negative views came up, however, was startling. The prevalence of these stereotypes perhaps says more about the ideas held by society than about female bosses. There was this telling statement by a young, upwardly mobile male management graduate we talked to for this piece (from one of the top management schools), “I’m all for women’s liberation, but somehow I would be uncomfortable reporting to a female boss.”

Many studies have shown that women are no less capable as bosses, although the perceptions may be different. Sairee Chahal sums it up when she says, “As a role, being a boss is a tough place. The bucks stops with you and that has very little to do with whether you are a man or woman. Personally, I don’t think being a woman impacts my working relationship but the fact that when it comes to keeping up to the delivery promise, I am accountable.”

*Names changed on request

This was originally published in Women’s Web

How To Make Flexi-working Succeed

Work from home options or flexible working hours – working women in India are benefiting from the career possibilities offered by companies

Pallavi Mathur Lal, mother of two and Associate Director, Qualitative at Synovate India Pvt. Ltd returned to work 2 ½ years ago. A flexi-working arrangement helps her fulfil her need to work and also take care of her kids. The flexible working hours enable her to manage both house and work without feeling guilty about letting either side down – on one hand, and getting a kick out of both, on the other. Pallavi heads a team and her responsibilities include handling research projects, client services and business development.

Although she has a flexi-time job, her responsibilities are no less than a person working full time at the same level in the organization. She is part of the Senior Management and involved in all business aspects across Synovate. Her flexible working hours arrangement is such that she is required to bill a total number of hours in a month. She does not have any fixed number of hours or days that she has to work in the month. She also has the freedom of managing her work from home in case a need arises on her personal front. She intends to continue this arrangement for as long as she can.

The fact remains that it is still very much women who shoulder most responsibilities at home – whether children or elderly people. Keen to retain talented employees, companies are now more open to employing women who want to work flexi-time. In December 2009, Regus, a company in the field of workspaces, found in its survey (called ‘Flexible working mums’) that 64% of Indian business leaders were keen to hire more mothers on a flexi time basis.

Part time work, work from home & other ‘flex’ formats

Flexi-working is usually an arrangement between the company and the employee to work for x numbers of hours in a certain period. This arrangement could involve a person going into work each day for the specific period or in some cases, work from home options. It could mean part time work such as working for a fixed numbers of hours per week or flexible working options such as working for only a few days a week. Such arrangements vary from one company to another and often vary for different employees even in the same company, depending on individual needs.

Companies however do expect flexi-working employees to stay back or come into work on an unscheduled day, if the need arises. In other words, Flexibility is a two way street. Industries where flexible working hours could work well include knowledge based industries, software companies, non television media, publishing, recruitment and marketing firms.

Sairee Chahal, Co-founder, Fleximoms, a portal that connects women to employers willing to offer flexible working hours, feels that with advancements in technology, remote working is now more possible than earlier. It is necessary, she feels that employees have a thorough understanding of the job and the deliverables expected. Chahal says, “Flexible work is not freelance work. The same rules apply, even if you are working from home.” What is important is the commitment one brings to the job.

Flexible work is not freelance work. The same rules apply, even if you are working from home. 

As far as salaries are concerned, flexibility by itself need not mean lower pay. The salary structure usually depends on the nature and delivery of work for most white collar jobs. There are times however, when pay cuts may happen, for e.g. if the quantity of deliverables is substantially lowered.

A flexi-working career for women: Dos and Don’ts

Lumiere Business Solutions Pvt. Ltd., in Mumbai was founded almost 14 years ago and the company’s target community is women professionals who want to return to work after taking a break. Deepa Soman, MD of Lumiere states that the actual premises seat only 25 people. People have the option of working from home while others come in to work at the office. There are regular meetings however, at the office, where everyone has to be present – even those who work from home.

She says, “It is essential for a company to have a back up plan in place in order for flexi-working to be viable. It is necessary for communication systems and processes to be very strong”. According to Soman, the fact that this company has 300 deliverables a year and has never missed a deadline is testament enough to this.

Lumiere has a Pool Manager responsible for tracking employees’ work and their deliverables. On joining, employees are made aware of the company’s expectations in terms of commitment and that at times, they would have to go the extra mile. All employees have Blackberrys and laptops, enabling a smooth flow of communication between them and the Pool Manager.

On joining, employees are made aware of the company’s expectations in terms of commitment and that at times, they would have to go the extra mile. All employees have Blackberrys and laptops, enabling a smooth flow of communication between them and the Pool Manager.

Making Flexi-working work

Lumiere also has an intranet where employees can track the work. The system is very transparent and information is available at the click of a button. There is a regular feedback and monitoring system for each employee. Soman feels that “A flexible employee must show responsibility, personal leadership and integrity.”

Neville Postwalla, Director, People Functions at MindTree, Pune, says that the company has ladies who are working on a flexi-time basis. However, this depends on the person and the circumstances for the flexi-time. The workload and the salary is adjusted accordingly for such employees. He feels that such flexi-time jobs would work for technical and staff employees where it is feasible and practical to do so.

Flexi-working is still a relatively new concept in India and unfortunately, some managers perceive those seeking flexible hours as not ambitious or committed enough. Not all companies have an evaluation system evolved enough to measure the quality of deliverables rather than the face time or number of hours put in at the desk.

Although it is taking time, more companies are realizing that flexible working hours does not mean a lack of commitment. By helping employees get the best of both worlds, instead, this is a mutually beneficial arrangement and one that can work – with a little effort from both sides.

This was published in Women’s Web