Let’s Stop Stereotyping Women Bosses

Bosses are bosses, no matter what their gender. It’s Women’s History Month and the 21st century — high time to put these stereotypes to rest.

Written by Anessa Fike
Published on Mar. 08, 2024
Let’s Stop Stereotyping Women Bosses
Image: Shutterstock / Built In
Brand Studio Logo

I walked in to place my bag at my desk, and then there it was, that blood-boiling yell from the editor’s office, asking if that was me who just came into the newsroom. I took a deep breath and walked into my editor’s office. She asked me to close the door. 

3 Stereotypes of Women Bosses

  1. Held to a double standard; thinks she needs to act like a man to succeed.
  2. Determined to be a friend to everyone and to make sure everyone likes her.
  3. Caught in the middle — trying to be all things to all people.

Then, for 10 straight minutes, she screamed at me so loudly that every single person in the newsroom could hear it. This happened fairly often, and it was often about me failing to meet expectations or follow instructions that she never gave me. My colleagues and I were expected to read her mind, and if we didn't, plenty of screaming would follow.

Looking back now, nearly 20 years later, I know that this was absolutely verbal abuse and completely unacceptable behavior from anyone in a work setting.

I’ve been in the workforce for more than 15 years and have worked for many bosses, both men and women. While women get the stereotype of being bad bosses more often than men, it really doesn’t have to be that way.

read more about women in techHow Bridging the AI Skills Gender Gap Will Reshape Our Workforce

Women Bosses: 3 Stereotypes

Women in management and leadership are measured against a different set of metrics. There are different rules to the game for them than there are for the rest of us. It’s literally what makes the status quo the status quo, and while I fight against that status quo every day — because let’s face it, it needs to go — it can be exhausting and tiring work. 

In fact, women leaders whom I’ve known over the years will say they are typically more tired and exhausted than you will ever hear their male colleagues say. And that does not even include the mental load many women carry outside of or even in the workplace. From what I’ve seen, women in charge tend to have longer lists of responsibilities in their roles than those of their colleagues who are men. 

As I think through all of the women that I’ve had as bosses, all of the women that I know in management and leadership roles, and even the roles I’ve had myself as a woman, I can boil down the way women approach managing others into three types. These types are wide-ranging and nuanced, but this is a good way to start thinking about what type of leader you may want to be if you also happen to be a woman. 


The Woman Held to A Double Standard 

The first type of women in management look at the business world and think they need to act like a man to find success. Except that within the organization, her actions are going to be seen differently than a man. And yes, even if they are doing the exact same thing. 

Take this example: I’ve been in many meetings where I’ve said a brilliant idea, then a man speaks over me, and 20 minutes later, another man says the same thing I just said. If I pull it out and say that that’s exactly what I just said 20 minutes ago, I’m seen as a bitch. I’m seen as aggressive, ambitious and challenging. Yet the colleague in the room who was a man is not seen as stealing my idea and trying to take the credit. 

The rules of the game seem to be different for women than they are for men. Think about this, women who are ambitious and direct are often called aggressive and cold. Men who are ambitious and direct are often called successful and good communicators. 

Still, as a woman, it’s tiring to have to put on a mask and exhausting because trying to manage like men do still doesn’t work. Women trying to act like men are often put down more and called more names, when really, they were never playing the same game in the first place. Instead, the colleague who is a man in essence had his starting block in the middle of the marathon while the woman had to start a mile before the starting flag. 


The Woman Who Is Everyone’s Friend

On the opposite side of this, you have women who try to be friendly and nurturing to everyone. They lean into their vulnerability, their empathy, their kindness, and they truly want to make sure everyone in the organization likes them. It’s also how they see themselves making an impact and moving mountains, except that this type of behavior also tends to shoot women in the foot.

Women who try this way of managing receive more vitriol. They often get told they are too nice, too soft, too friendly, and they are seen as never enough. With this way of acting, women in management tend to see more being pushed onto their plates because their colleagues know they will not say no to additional tasks in an effort to try to be helpful. Women in management that act this way also tend to get the label of “less strategic” and often get spoken over in meetings more often because of their softness. 

In effect, what happens from a higher level is that they aren’t able to effectively push back on leaders who might be continuing harmful tropes in an organization, and therefore, they are doing more harm than good because they are continuing to try to “go along to get along,” which only helps other white men in the company and rarely helps anyone else. 


The Woman Caught In the middle

Then you have the woman in management who is caught in between these two stereotypes, the woman who is truly trying to do her best in all aspects of management. 

She tries to be strategic but not too direct in her delivery of that strategy so that she doesn’t offend her colleagues who are men. 

She tries to be kind, empathetic and thoughtful enough with her colleagues and team so she doesn’t get figuratively stomped on and trampled over every day. 

She tries to be helpful enough so that her colleagues don’t find her “hard hard to work with” or “not a team player,” yet set enough boundaries so she doesn’t get 11 million things dumped onto her plate every week because other people don’t want to do those things. 

She tries to showcase her expertise and set boundaries for herself while also not being seen as aloof, elitist or too good for people.

She tries to stand up for and fight back for her team while also not pissing off the other leaders in the organization so that they gang up on her and give her no budget and resources at all. 

She tries to ensure that everyone in the organization likes her enough to listen and respect her but also not too much so that they feel like they can call and email her at all hours of the day and then get mad at her for not responding right away. 

As you can see, it’s tough to be a woman in management, and even tougher for those who are not white women in management. 

More on Women in LeadershipWant to Read the Senior Level in IT? Here’s Advice From 5 Women Leaders.

How to Erase These Stereotypes

Above all, we continue to get more and more women into management positions so we can advocate and fight for each other and ourselves. More women in the room help each other and also help the overall business run better, as study upon study has shown us. 

Then, let’s stop putting so much pressure on ourselves. What if we acted in a more authentic way? What if we actually were able to be vulnerable, get real about what we were good at and ask for help when we need it? Would we be seen as less-capable bosses? Perhaps in a toxic work environment. But in a good work environment, these would all be seen as ways that actually help teams become closer. 

I’m ready for the day when we can all come to work, be authentic, have our strengths, and yes, have our weaknesses, but want to work on a better workplace together. 

Because my shoulders feel heavy and weighed down when I try to be something I’m not. Don’t yours? 

Hiring Now
Marketing Tech • Mobile • Software