Do workers discriminate against female bosses?

Yes, it seems:

I hire 2,700 workers for a transcription job, randomly assigning the gender of their (fictitious) manager and provision of performance feedback. While praise from a manager has no effect, criticism negatively impacts workers’ job satisfaction and perception of the task’s importance. When female managers, rather than male, deliver this feedback, the negative effects double in magnitude. Having a critical female manager does not affect effort provision but it does lower workers’ interest in working for the firm in the future. These findings hold for both female and male workers. I show that results are consistent with gendered expectations of feedback among workers. By contrast, I find no evidence for the role of either attention discrimination or implicit gender bias.

That is from a new paper by Martin Abel.


'but it does lower workers’ interest in working for the firm in the future'

Must be some sort of biological cause, right? You know, something like the importance of upper body strength.

You are being facetious, but obviously biology has something to do with how males and females respond to interactions with other males and females.

Yeah, it activates the "my boss is a bitch" gene. Studies have proved culture has nothing to do with it.

I hope most people aren't this simple.

This presupposes that female bosses and male bosses are equal and interchangeable.

Notoriously and infamously, they are not. A female boss pushes her male subordinates and less favored female subordinates away, as if she does not want them to work for her any more.

When a male boss delivers negative feedback, he does so as if he wants you around to do it right for him the next time.

When a female boss delivers negative feedback, it is as if she does not want you around any more.

The male boss pulls people together to work for him. The female boss pushes them away.

That's my experience too.

That, and you are not allowed to criticize a female boss.

If a male boss is unfair to you, you can often go to HR, or perhaps his boss. You might get some satisfaction, you might not, but you know it's worth a shot. With a female boss, you know that you'll be declared the bad guy.... so you just quit.

FWIW, I personally cannot recall a case where grassing someone up to HR did a bloody bit of good. a world that is changing rapidly, these are exactly the deeper issues that need to be discussed. I hear two archaic ideas...on the female side that you are out of the tribe, and on the male side, that the tribe is everything. In fact, there is no tribe here actually, there is only the relationship of the individual contractor to the company. There IS a need for high-level HR here, to professionalize a situation that has devolved. We are sorely missing the leadership that well-run companies provide in this instance. Geoff Colvin's book Talent is Overrated is instructive on that point. And speaking of books, the disconnect between males and females that is so articulately made in this discussion is a sound premise for a book (and subsequent thought leadership/consulting).

Interesting comment and hypothesis. I’m waiting for the Malcolm Gladwell essay.

He's too busy these days trying to get Jerry Sandusky out of prison.

Is that why Trump's feedback makes him sound like a female boss?

We get it! Orange Man Bad! Time to move on with your life. sheesh.

Why so angry? It's just words on a screen.

That TDS looks lovely on you. Matches your eyes.

You are not supposed to say that to transitioning people.

Less of this, please.

It's the troll, who lives for this.

Hi, different anonymous here.

I've got to say, I don't know which is stranger. That an "anonymous" would make such a strange/weak complaint on impeachment day, or that people would respond to such an obvious troll.

Ah well, life is strange.

"This presupposes that female bosses and male bosses are equal and interchangeable." No, nothing in the summary provided by Tyler presupposes that.

Uhh randomly assigning only the gender of the (fictitious) manager does presuppose that...

I agree with you that the model does presuppose homogeneity, but that is exactly the point of the experimental design: ceteris paribus.

"This presupposes that female bosses and male bosses are equal and interchangeable."

Yes. Perhaps these 2,700 subjects have had 30-40 male and female managers over their careers, and have independently developed rational heuristics that explain this discrimination.

Or perhaps there's a more simple solution.

The rational heuristic explanation IS the simple solution.

The experience of these 2700 people is not limited to just work experience, but also parenting, school, mentors, sports coaches, friends, friends parents, etc.

By the time a person becomes an adult, theyve had thousands of opportunities to observe leadership styles, and often quite diverse albeit non random.

As sample size increases, unbiased and estimators from non random samples eventually converge on the population parameter.

Hey hey, I can do that too! By the time these 2,700 subjects become adults they've had thousands of opportunities to be exposed to misogyny in culture, from TV to movies to their own family and friends, and online commenters like Willitts. It should be no surprise that they internalize it and then try to make up reasons why discriminating against women is good.

The population parameter has misogyny baked in. It's no surprise that studies then reflect this.

I'm waiting for the day one of these studies catches newborn infants on their way out of the uterus and the blank-slaters are forced to claim that misogynistic discrimination is present in our brain chemistry, therefore unwittingly closing the loop.

I'm waiting for the day when one of these 'misogyny is biological' commenters actually creates a rigorous study that disproves the environmental and cultural link.

I think you will wait a long time for a study that separates discrimination from all the cultural baggage of the participants. And even longer for such a study that isn't plausibly dismissed by whichever side dislikes its conclusions.

Maybe you're waiting just because you don't know or care to make a distinction between misogyny and simple biological differences, which was precisely my point.

More likely it is a common knowledge thing. Women bosses know that they will be perceived one way so they change their method of delivering feedback. Everyone knows that women managers tend to do this modulation so they tend to modulate there response as well. When a female boss gives feedback absent any of her modulation people assume that she is actually doing so and the intended meaning is much more direct and harsh than the denotation of what she says.

Even if all this were was rank sexism at root, it takes only a small number of people to believe that this is common knowledge and the equilibrium is for everyone to act like it is true even when they personally have no sexist impulses.

Very little communication is strictly denotative. So because somewhere, perhaps only among people who are all already dead, there was a belief that women were indirect in their criticism, we have perfectly rational female leaders who know that if they merely reply with a direct, stereotypically male, response it will be misread. Not being morons, these women modulate their criticism to be indirect. People who work for them, not being morons, learn to that they are being indirect and that when it is direct things are serious.

Another way to say this is that Asperger's patients typically have trouble navigating workplace communication. From my experience, such patients typically have far more trouble with female supervisors and their supervisors have far more trouble getting into the habit of giving feedback directly. So yeah, we gave people a single datum and they reacted precisely as experience throughout their lives have taught them.

This isn't exactly news either. If I want my words not be filtered by my race, I have to drop a bunch of signifiers (MD, ex-military, neighborhood of residence, etc.) that place solidly in the lower-upper class, but on the works-for-a-living end of it. People expect to modulate my responses in certain manners from the denotation of what I say; I can either modulate myself and get my actual meaning across or I can give them more data so they know this is the uncommon situation where someone like me is not pre-emptively modulating.

Would life be better if I did not have to modulate for other people or work to give off signals? Sure. But it is somewhere between worried about people who leave cigarette butts on the pavement and finding gum on my shoes. But I don't really see an alternative. Do we really want all workplace communication to be something that is Asperger's friendly and requires no social heuristic processing? I mean we are only trying to stop one of the strongest drives in human cognition for the dubious gain of not requiring some of us from needing to demonstrate our personalities to our coworkers.

I'm sure this meander made sense to you as you were typing it.

it takes only a small number of people to believe that this is common knowledge and the equilibrium is for everyone to act like it is true even when they personally have no sexist impulses.

Not yet 2 am, but good chance this will be the silliest thing I'll read all day. Something that a small number of people believe and don't feel the need to tell anyone because they think it's common knowledge becomes common knowledge for everyone

Women understand leadership the way men understand pregnancy.

I agree with you on the state of the world, but what this study shows is that the employee sentiments are based on prejudice about women. It's not a matter of observing a fact but assuming a fact in the absence of information.

I see I missed the broad tar brush sale at Home Depot again.
The best boss I ever had was a woman, the worst a man- so bad he could have stepped out of a Dilbert cartoon. Though I once had a woman boss who was a real [rhymes with witch].
If there are generic differences between male and female bosses that hold across all job types, then they are subtle, and easily swamped by individual differences.

Did the 'best boss you ever had' criticize you?

And that matters why?
But to answer, yes, in a positive "Try to do better" way. Not in a "You're a jackass and I blame everything on you" way.

I thought "fictitious" was probably important here. In the realm of reality, there is that great quote from M Thatcher when she sacked Christopher Soames: "I got the distinct impression that he felt the natural order of things was being violated and that he was, in effect, being dismissed by his housemaid".

He was born into the gentry and attended Eton. She was the daughter of a small town merchant from Lincolnshire and attended the local grammar school. (BTW, David Cameron and Boris Johnson excepted, every Tory leader since 1965 has had a background that approximated Margaret Thatcher's or carried no more cachet than Margaret Thatcher's).

2700 workers? From India?

AMT is biased to people currently unemployed.

The conclusions may need some rewording: "workers who can't keep any job are more sensitive to female manager criticism".

Norah Vincent wanted to know how the other half lives and spent a year disguised as a man. She wrote a book about her experiences, "Self-Made Man". She was quite surprised by the vast differences she found between men and women, and between male society and female society. I cannot confirm or disprove Jim's comment, but Vincent does write that she found that the male society she encountered was much more empowering and encouraging of rivals than the female society she knew. Vincent was amazed when a man on a rival bowling team went out of his way to help her/him improve her/his game.

Why is this necessarily discrimination? Couldn't it be that the criticism of females is taken more seriously and therefore more disheartening?

Umm, that's exactly what it's saying. People view criticism from a female boss more negatively than a male boss, and respond in kind. That's also known as discrimination.

Or phrased another way, workers don't care what their male boss thinks and ignore their criticism. That's also known as discrimination.

Taking female criticism more seriously - i.e. caring about a female's view of the quality of your work more than a man's - is not anti woman discrimination. It's assigning more weight to the opinion of a woman.

It sounded to me that the criticism from females was less well tolerated. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Since the manager is fictitious, there is definitely prejudice or stereotypes going on. If you are correct, it only flips the sign of the response.

What the paper also notes - but not the abstract - is the data seems to show changes by age which could be explained by a rapid evolution of gender norms over time. To quote:

I do find, however, that younger workers react less negatively to critical female managers and that gender discrimination completely disappears among workers in the 20s. In line with the importance of gendered expectations, these young workers are also less likely to associate critical feedback with male managers.

(If female leaders are - at least at the present time - on average more soft-spoken, it wouldn't seem to me to be particularly unreasonable to take equally-strongly worded criticism as harsher when delivered by a woman in the absence of individuating information).

I'm not sure that female leaders are more soft-spoken. Perhaps? But soft-spoken women are also unlikely to be pushed through the leadership track.

Feels a little like trying to retcon a reason rather than take the evidence at face value.

Female leaders get more bitchy when they are critical. The feedback here is written, so the reader is attaching stereotypical male and female voices to it. These voices will either be those of a close role model (e.g. mother, father) or a generalized person of each gender. If in ones experience female leaders are more bitchy in criticism or less fair, this will change the perceptions for the reader.

It is undoubtedly stereotypical and prejudice. The question is why. Is it negative stereotypes perpetuated by the misogynist patriarchy, or is it because most women are bitchy when they are critical? From my experience, I go with the latter.

We cast women as "bitchy", but not men. Men, exhibiting the same behavior, may be "strident" or "assertive" or possible even "aggressive". But not "bitchy". That's all on you, being blinded by your biases.

you know, i've always wondered if this is true. i feel like men are called assholes, jerks, blowhards, stupid, annoying, insufferable, etc all the time.

Sure, but never "bitchy." Don't you see how hateful that is?? Or are you just blinded by your biases??!?


I think the use of "bitch" is changing and it's becoming less gender specific. I've heard guys referred to as "bitchy". I've even used the word of myself on a bad day (among friends, not at work)

I'm not sure. I've had some male bosses whose behavior I described as "being a dick". I imagine I'd describe similar behavior by a woman as "bitchy". I've never had any issues with my female bosses, though I've had significantly fewer of them. I've also never received any real criticism from them for what it's worth.

I'm not really disputing the findings of the study, but I don't think calling behavior "bitchy" is necessarily indicative of bias.

No, we call those male bosses assholes.

Quasi-modern management training has "don't be an asshole" as one of it's main tenets, though it is often saved for the last slide in the PowerPoint preso.

When I train new managers I start with "don't be an asshole". Even if you know nothing about people management your employees will forgive many sins if you follow the usual and customary protocols of politeness and treat everyone with dignity and respect. Notions of politeness are culture bound, which can be complicated in a globalized world, but in my experience in high tech, the high tech world has it's own subculture shared around the globe. But even so, culture matters, and it matters bigly. It would not surprise me that this study is profoundly influenced by cultural norms.

Per Scott Adams in "Dilbert's Management Handbook": Fire the assholes.

I was personally more interested in the finding that praise has no effect but criticism negatively impacts job satisfaction.

This doesn't surprise me at all. Women in leadership positions are often excellent with praise and poor with discipline.

Praise is cheap and costs the manager little; it is never challenged. Discipline is costly and risky, requiring delicate attention.

I cant tell you how many times in the army I've seen female leaders doing a great job until some stress event takes place, and then they fall apart. Their adrenaline response leans more toward flight than fight. They lose cognitive focus to their emotions, especially fear.

Look at Hillary in the famous photo of the White House staff during the bin laden raid. Look at tens of millions of women incapable of promptly reporting sexual assault and aggressively pursuing their attackers.

They are a mess of emotions.

"Doing a great job until some stress event takes place" -- you're on to something here that goes beyond the "bitchy/not bitchy" discussion.

Before I went independent I was fortunate to have a string of low-key, soft-spoken male bosses. Even the one charismatic, high-powered guy kept things calm and collegial. And despite being a meticulous perfectionist, my dad was in a crazy business and if his plans blew up there was no yelling, screaming or finger pointing at his staff -- just laugh at fate, take a breath and start back in.

So what I see is a sense of calm or fatalism with these guys that keeps things from melting down in the clutch.

But since going free-lance I've worked almost exclusively with female bosses/clients -- and all is fine until things get a little tight or crazy, and then the edge of panic is often detectable wafting around in the air. And part of this is likely because THEY now have female bosses.

Knowing what we know now, one hasd to wonder whether this result is reproducible.

Had the results been the other way around (criticism by male bosses had more effect), then Tyler's headline would have been about what might be wrong with male bosses (do they lack 'emotional intelligence' are they 'unfit for the 21st century economy'). And of course, had only the male employees had a problem with female criticism, then it would have been about 'fragile male egos' unable to handle criticism from women. But this particular result required a bit more careful reframing to put it into the standard 21st century 'Althouse Rule' form (whenever any sex differences are reported they must be presented such that males are presumed to be worse).

Excellent point.

Remember the study that found conservatives to be more neurotic than liberals...until someone discovered a flipped sign? Imagine if such was the case here. It would be interesting to see the spin.

Framing effects, as you suggest, are very important in politics, law, rhetoric, etc. Ironically, the study itself is modeling a framing effect.

Posts like this on this blog always make me feel like an experimental subject.

Everyday is Halloween for Tyler - he's a moderate leftist in a libertarian suit, or so it appears to me.

The author writes "By contrast, I find no evidence for the role of either attention discrimination or implicit gender bias" and yet Tyler asks if female bosses are victims of discrimination by workers. Jeesh!

After last summer's catastrophic wildfires and the massive rainfall and it's associated treefalls and mudslides during the following winter, I see roofs being replaced and trees being cut down - especially by the contractors working for Pacific Gas and Electric - everywhere. I haven't seen even one woman on a hot roof with a mop full of stinking hot tar or dangling in a tree with a chainsaw. Clearly women are being systematically blocked from entering these professions. We have to do something about that. It's mysogyny I tell ya!

Camille Paglia offered an anecdote of having a flat tire. She said every single person involved in getting her car back on the road was male, and that academic and journalistic feminists yapping about the superfluity of mean were clueless about the social reality she lived through that afternoon.

he's a moderate leftist in a libertarian suit, or so it appears to me.

I think 'other-directed academic careerist' is more like it. The moderator is quite concerned with status and ranking ("top ten" songs, chess-players, what have you). You lose status on faculties when you step over certain lines. So you'll never see a serious critique of higher education here, or employment discrimination law, or the appellate judiciary.

By contrast, look at Bryan Caplan. He doesn't care who he offends (one suspects because he's not, er, 'neurotypical'. Or, Scott Sumner, whose other-directed qualities concern only the society of professional economists. He's contemptuous of everyone else.

The setting here should not be ignored. I actually worked as a transcriptionist and court reporter in college and law school. The field is dominated by women, at both the employee and supervisor level. Overwhelmingly so.

Note that the effects are absent in younger people and grow stronger for older people. Experience is likely correlated with age, and experience would expose a transcriptionist to far more female supervisors than male. This would, all else equal, reduce the standard error of one's estimator for female supervisor character. If that character parameter is more bitchy than the men, then knowing the gender leads to an inference of bitchiness. This inference may be an ecological fallacy, but at least it is an error not rooted in sexism but rather experience.

I certainly hope you do not work with women now. That would not be a good work environment for them.

It could be that your experience of female manager is shaped by the fact that the female managers you have worked with (correctly) perceived your antipathy towards being managed by a female and therefore treated you like a sexist dickhead.

Your staff doesn't care for you because you are unpleasant and obtuse, Hazel. Grow some people skills or get over it.

Inflammatory, insulting, and unnecessary. You’re an older man. You should know the internet is made up of real people. You’re not a 15 year old girl on Instagram.

Less of this, please.

>Do workers discriminate against female bosses? Yes, it seems

Nonsense. Experts agree that one simply can't discriminate (or be bigoted) unless one has power, and that workers have none.

Sexism is alive and well including in the design of this study. No point in assuming a level playing field when none exists. The way data was collected for this paper sounds like an answer chasing a question. Those complainers are not high performers; they may also be jerks whose problems accepting feedback from women are correlated with other indicators suggesting that the company can do without them too.

Lol! Is this post satire?

Sure, every one of those workers were sexist jerks and probably incompetent and should be fired!

The key word is in the 4th sentence: MAY. More specifically, the sentence is an attempt to sneak speculation in as actual data. Note that the first 3.25 sentences are all absolutes: Sexism IS alive and well, a level playing field does NOT exist, the complainers ARE NOT high performers. The reason we are supposed to accept this? They MAY be jerks.

I'd fail a first-year college student for such a poorly-reasoned response.

I wonder how many comparisons he had to choose from, and how many narratives he could have created for each possible finding.

For example, couldn't this result have been described in terms of employees taking womens' feedback more seriously? If the results had been the opposite, I rather suspect that would have been the narrative.

The "Jim of Jim's blog" comment is the evidence B (together with the study) that people discriminate against female bosses.

Is this an early warning shot over the bow of Sen. Warren's campaign?

Television owners might anticipate campaign commercials focusing on a "schoolmarm" caricature, featuring her hectoring, her lecturing, her rebukes, her chastisements, her rebuttals, her corrections, her criticisms, et cetera. From the little I've heard, her voice is not so attractive, less so as it becomes shrill with invective or accusation.

Certo, the US does NOT need another Harvard brainiac as President.

"Harvard brainiac"

But they are the best and the brightest! David Halberstam said so!

They have done such a great job!

If you don't like Ivy League geniuses as President, why did you vote one in?

He's not a genius, he's a cunning junk yard dog, but he's MY dog. ;)

Beware of the dog!


I've worked for capable women and inept women. IMO, you see several problems with inept female supervisors you see less of with male supervisors, all derived from a deficit of goal orientation:

1. The supervisor's or manager's priority is to placate complaining employees and complaining peers and avoid riling them in any way.

2. The most influential vector influencing the supervisor or manager's interactions with her subordinates is spite. The quantum of spite she harbors varies from employee to employee so she plays favorites by default.

3. The supervisor or manager designs practices and processes without regard to function.

4. She has mercurial reactions to things, inducing her subordinates to not tell her things they can avoid telling her.

My wife's notoriously "mercurial" boss came in one day obviously wearing her dress backwards. The staff was justifiably hesitant about pointing this out, but as second in command my wife felt it best to gently raise the issue sometime that afternoon and spare her boss potential embarrassment in some corporate meeting.

I don't think you can get around the problem of gendered language expectations, though. Identical words chosen from a script for criticism may sound harsher coming from a female boss, but that doesn't necessarily mean that female bosses can't deliver criticism with equivalent effect by choosing to speak in female gendered language. (That is, a recipient may blow off mild criticism or faint praise from a male boss, but interpret the same words as stronger criticism coming from a female boss, by reading between the lines.)

It's a form of differing expectations, but while it satisfies one meaning of discrimination, it's not clear that it's necessarily worse (outside of both sexes being expected to conform to cultural stereotypes).

Anyone familiar with the slightly serious amusing table of British understatement in business ("I'm sure it's my fault" means "It's your fault," "Quite good" is "a bit disappointing," "I was a bit disappointed that" is "I am very annoyed that", etc.) knows that there are different standards for languages across cultural boundaries that can cause confusion. (The same scripts likely induce different responses in different cultures.) Gendered language expectations exist within cultures, but that doesn't mean that understatement necessarily can't be effective.

However, of course it certainly can have that effect: American culture in general encourages boasting more than British culture, but generally among men; among women, not so much. Employers might be more likely to compensate for an understated Brit than for a culturally diffident American women (or, if particularly attuned to gendered expectations but not cultural differences, might make allowances for women but not for British men.)

That's because the same words mean different things coming from different mouths. If men are typically more blunt than women, message X from a man is taken at face value, whereas the same message X from a women is interpreted more severely (because the recipient assumes the message has been softened, and so the true message must be stronger than it appears).

The implication of this paper is that women (empirically) are *perceived to be* about half as blunt as men, because "the negative effects double in magnitude." Furthermore, the same effect is observed in message recipients of both genders, meaning this perception is shared by both women and men.

The solution, it seems, is for women to conform to this perception. Instead of delivering message X, a woman should deliver message X/2. Then her message will be received accurately.

Note that "blunt" may or may not be synonymous with "honest." I call this the "what if everyone lies" conundrum. Suppose you're on an online dating site, and it is well known that everyone knocks 5 years off his/her age. If you give your real age, you are in effect lying, because everyone will add 5 years to it. Perversely, the only way to tell the truth is to lie (i.e., knock 5 years off like everyone else). Likewise, if the perception is that women are half as blunt as men, the only way for a woman to communicate accurately is to be... half as blunt as men.

Another way to put your last paragraph is "Tailor your diction to your audience". When I was in school this was considered non-controversial, even a basic tenant of public speaking. These days it seems like something to be ashamed of.

Two bosses can deliver the exact words of criticism but one might be more skilled at timing, framing and conducting the talk so the employee is not needlessly embarrassed in front of co-workers, even if they can plainly see a meeting is going on through the glass partitions.

Similarly, the exact same critical points can be framed to seem like the first step forward, rather than irrevocable notice that you're on the shit-list to stay.

So to be more direct, I've seen more female bosses dress down a staffer in front of other people if an expectation was not swiftly met, while male bosses may have more concern for the staffer's dignity and wait for a more private moment.

A question occurs to me: Who wrote the statements in the first place? That could be a factor here. If we hear/interpret language in a gendered context (the assumption in the article) it's almost certainly true that we speak in a gendered context as well. If that's the case, and the criticism is written by a man, that would explain the results: the male would naturally write in a gendered manner, and the listener/reader would read in a gendered manner (but for the wrong gender), amplifying the negativity of the criticism.

Not that I buy this--as someone said up-thread, individual variations are far, far, FAR more important than those within any genetically-based grouping--but it's fun to speculate.

My anecdote would be that I worked for a large biomedical company with a fair number of women managers. It occurred to me later that I'd been assigned to a number of women led teams, and not everyone else was.

I'd expect that in such environment workers are sorted pretty quickly, that women managers talk, and men uncomfortable with their leadership end up other places in the company.

This is obviously going to have an effect on surveys. If employees are correctly sorted, no one notices anything.

Here's an event on Catholic social thought at Georgetown University October 2. A rather different point of view.

Comments for this post are closed